French firm’s special plaster made from sea worms saves burns victim

The wound-healing innovation was created due to scientist’s curiosity while gazing at a beach in Roscoff

A view of doctors speaking at a hospital with a patient in the background
The burns victim had a poor prognosis until doctors used the new 'plaster' technology on his skin (image for illustration only)
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A French-made skin plaster created from the blood of sea worms has been used to save a burns victim who may otherwise not have survived.

The patient, 33, was severely injured after an explosion on his boat in Loire last summer. He had second- and third-degree burns over 85% of his body. While he survived and was admitted to the burns unit at the CHU Nantes hospital, his skin was failing to heal, and his condition was worsening.

Franck Zal, a doctor in marine biology and founder of the Hemarina biopharmaceutical laboratory - which designed the innovative burns plaster - explained the seriousness of the patient’s situation to RTL.

He said: “There is a rule for burn victims. If the sum of the proportion of surface area burnt, added to the age of the patient, exceeds 100, we consider that there is almost no chance of saving them.”

This is usually because there is not enough healthy skin left to create skin grafts to heal the burns. The patient’s sum was 118, at age 33 with 85% burns. “This person was in effect doomed,” said Dr Zal.

But doctors at the CHU Nantes were able to help him by using the new French-made sea worm plaster.

Dr Pierre Perrot, head of department at the Nantes burns centre, told 20 Minutes: “For this patient, in order to limit the surface area to be grafted and therefore to be harvested from the few unburned areas, we opted for this dressing to try and heal the thorax, abdomen and back without surgery.

“We could thereby preserve the donor sites for the hands and lower limbs,” he said.

The patient required 330 plasters to cover the 110cm2 needed.

How does the plaster work?

The plaster does not actually contain any sea worm but rather uses a protein in its haemoglobin (part of its blood), which has large oxygenation capacity.

The protein is present on beaches on the Atlantic and Channel coasts.

The lab, which has its own fish farm on the island of Noirmoutier, off the Vendée coast, breeds the worms under strict pharmaceutical-grade conditions. It then kills them by freezing, which helps to separate the haemoglobin. This is then purified, sterilised and packaged in a three-week process.

This is then administered in the form of gel, via a syringe, and spread over the burn. It can then offer a “targeted and continued” form of oxygenation on the wound, Dr Perrot explained.

Dr Zal came up with the idea (and the lab’s other worm blood products) after wondering how sea worms could survive for so long outside of water.

Read more: French scientist’s lightbulb moment to use worm blood in transplants

He told The Connexion in November last year: “It was one of those moments that happen in science - I was in my laboratory at Roscoff [Finistère], looking out at the beach and the sea and seeing, as usual, people digging for worms, and I suddenly thought ‘How do they survive so long out of water?’.

“Most humans can only hold their breath for at most two or three minutes, and yet these little animals, which have been on the earth for 450 million years, can last six hours. It is incredible.”

Franck Zal, chercheur en vers marins

— Bretagne Presse (@ABPtwit) March 12, 2019

The new plaster design came after Dr Zal focused his research on this exact question.

Around a dozen patients have benefited from this new innovation so far, but it has already offered major breakthroughs, including helping one patient avoid having their hand amputated.

The worm blood technology could also go on to help people with foot ulcers and problems due to diabetes, and those with severe scarring from previous injuries.

It is also used to keep transplant organs fresh for hours, to give surgeons more time to prepare for transplant surgeries and avoid the rush of usual procedures.

“You no longer need transplant teams working at three in the morning because the kidney will now be as fresh at 09.00 as it was at 03.00,” said Dr Zal, to The Connexion.

“This is a major technological breakthrough in the field of wound healing.”

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