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Catfish Slime's Healing Agents

By SANDRA BLAKESLEE

Published: January 26, 1988




CATFISH slime, a gel-like substance secreted by the fish, has remarkable properties that help heal wounds, a team of American and Kuwaiti scientists has discovered.
The scientists made their discovery while studying marine life in the Arabian Gulf. Richard S. Criddle, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at Davis, said that when a local Gulf species of catfish is caught, it secretes a slime over its entire body.
''I have used it myself on cuts,'' he said. ''They heal entirely in 3 days, instead of the usual 10.''
Dr. Criddle said that his colleague, Jassim al-Hassan, a professor of biochemistry at Kuwait University, saw Arab fishermen rub the slime on cuts and scratches several years ago. It was around as folk medicine for a long time, Dr. Criddle said, ''and has only been rediscovered by us.''
American catfish, including freshwater species, and many other fish also secrete a similarly beneficial slime, but they tend to secrete it beneath their outer skin, Dr. Criddle said. The Arabian saltwater catfish, Arius bilineatis, which grows up to three feet long, is different in that it secretes the slime on its outer surface, making it more accessible and easier to isolate, he said. 60 Healing Agents A detailed analysis of the slime has turned up about 60 different proteins that are fundamental agents of wound healing in humans and other animals. One activates prostaglandins, substances that help initiate inflammation and pain responses to wounds. Others block bacterial growth.
The slime also contains a high concentration of the molecules that coagulate blood, forming clots that stop bleeding, and enzymes that accelerate cell division and the formation of new tissue.
The various substances in the slime trigger all sorts of chemical reactions under the skin, Dr. Criddle said, ''bringing in white blood cells to break up broken tissue and clean it out, bringing in cells that start making repair products and then shutting the whole process down when the wound is healed.''
The catfish probably developed the ability to heal rapidly, Dr. Criddle said, because a wounded fish bleeding in the ocean is likely to attract predators. The slime would also keep sores from contact with dirty water.
Catfish slime may eventually be used to accelerate wound-healing in patients who do not heal well, such as diabetics and older people, and for burn victims, Dr. Criddle said.
Drug companies have made inquiries about the slime, but as part of their overall approach to developing better wound-healing products, he said. The complexity of duplicating the proteins in the proper balance might preclude synthesizing it.
 
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