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A Brazilian woman, born without a vagina, has become the first in the world to undergo pioneering reconstructive surgery that successfully created a new vaginal canal using the skin of tilapia fish.
Researchers at the Federal University of Ceara (UFC) in northeast Brazil, led by gynecologist Dr. Leonardo Bezerra, revealed the unprecedented procedure, called a neovaginoplasty, was performed on Jucilene Marinho, 23, in April 2017.
The unorthodox treatment is faster, cheaper and less aggressive than the conventional method used for sufferers of Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH), a rare congenital disorder that affects approximately one in 5,000 newborn girls and results in the absence of some or all of the female reproductive organs.
The revolutionary treatment involves opening a space between the vagina and anus and inserting a tubular mold lined with the skin of the freshwater fish.
Once in contact with the patient’s body, tilapia skin acts like stem cells and is absorbed and transformed into cellular tissue forming the walls of the canal, similar to that of an actual vagina.
Before being used, the fish skin undergoes a special cleaning and sterilization process in the lab followed by irradiation to kill viruses.
The process removes all the scales and fish smell and results in a light-colored gel dressing that can be stored for up to two years in refrigerated sterile packaging.
An ecstatic Marinho spoke for the first time to FocusOn News about how the ground-breaking surgery has changed her life and made her feel like “a proper woman” who now enjoys a healthy sex life.
The young university student from Lavras da Mangabeira was diagnosed in her teens with having no cervix, uterus, ovaries or womb.
However, to doctors’ surprise, she developed normally throughout puberty and even experienced menstrual cramping pains in her stomach but never had a period. At the age of 15 she was given the crushing news there was nothing but connective tissue behind the skin blocking the opening of her vagina.
“I cried a lot when I found out,” she recalled. “I thought my world had ended. I’d always dreamed of having a baby of my own now I had to accept that wouldn’t be possible.”
She spiraled into a deep depression fearing she would never experience an intimate and loving relationship. This worsened when a teenage boyfriend mocked and broke up with her after discovering the disorder.
But last year, six months after agreeing to become the first of four women to have the experimental procedure, Marinho had sex for the first time in her life with her partner Marcus Santos, 24, who she has been with for over a year and who has supported her throughout.
“I spent three months recuperating from the operation and then doctors gave me the all clear to have sex in October last year,” Marinho happily revealed.
“At first I was very scared to do it because I thought it would hurt and I was worried it might damage the opening. But it was a wonderful moment because everything worked perfectly. There was no pain just a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction.”
“I didn’t feel any discomfort and there was no bleeding. Everything felt sensitive in what I’m told is the right and normal way. It was perfectly natural like the opening had always been there,” she confided.
Bezerra, who leads a multidisciplinary team of surgeons at the Assis Chateaubriand Maternity School (MEAC), has treated four sufferers with MRKH, also known as vaginal agenesis, with the break-through treatment.
It is less invasive surgically than the traditional method which involves creating a vaginal canal using extensive grafts from the patient’s groin. Some 23 patients have undergone the conventional treatment at MEAC over the past ten years.
“This procedure can be time-consuming and painful as the patient needs to recover from a large incision which leaves a scar that can be unsightly and stigmatizing. There is also the possibility of discomfort with the reconstructed tissue,” Bezerra explained.
By comparison, neovaginaplasty has a faster recovery rate with no visible scars. There are minimal complications with no risk of rejection or infections, the doctor said.
In addition, medical costs and materials are low – a significant benefit in a public health system strapped for cash – with operating times quicker and an abundance of the inexpensive, mild-tasting Tilapia fish readily available from Brazil’s rivers and fish farms.
Research shows that tilapia skin, normally thrown away as a waste product, contains large amounts of moisture and is rich in collagen type 1, a protein that promotes healing. It is disease resistant and as strong and resilient as human skin.
Since 2015, scientists at the UFC Research and Development of Medicines Nucleus coordinated by Professor Odorico Moraes, have been trialing a radical procedure that uses the moisture-filled skin of the freshwater fish to heal more than 200 victims with severe burns — with notable success. The normal regime is painful and involves regular changes of gauze bandages along with painkillers and ointments.
“There was a eureka moment when we thought, if this membrane can be used for burns, why can’t it be used for the vagina,” said Bezerra who began investigating the procedure in January 2016.
“To make the ‘new vagina’ we insert a vagina-shaped acrylic mold, lined with the skin of tilapia, into the space created between the bladder and the rectum. The device remains there for 10 days to prevent the walls from closing,” the doctor explained.
“During this period the skin of the tilapia is absorbed, and the cells and growth factors released by the membrane transforms, like stem cells, into the patient’s tissue cells.
“Finally, the patient’s body completely incorporates the tilapia skin becoming biocompatible with it. The fish skin stimulates cellular growth and the formation of blood vessels and creates a new canal equal to that of an actual vagina,” he continued.
After the operation, patients have been able to get up and walk after an average of 12 days of recovery with the mold being replaced with silicone or a sponge for comfort. Under the established procedure, convalescents spend weeks in bed without moving and have to learn to walk again.
Marinho suffered minor internal bleeding and was discharged after three weeks in the hospital and admits the moment she left she went out to celebrate.
“My family and friends, who have always been there for me, took me out to ‘toast’ my new vagina,” she said laughing.
“And it felt so good to have something the majority of women take for granted,” she added with a deep sigh of relief.
Doctors are now working towards offering the new treatment in multiple medical centers throughout Brazil and in different locations across the world once clinical studies have been completed and strict protocols established.
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