Although cosmetics and skincare giant L'Oréal has been developing reconstructed skin since the 1980s, the search for animal alternatives became urgent in recent months with the introduction of two pieces of legislation.
Human skin to replace animal tests
25 July 2007
NewScientist.com news service
Zeeya Merali Lyon
Stretched taut across the top of a vial, the thin cream-coloured material feels almost like rubber. Barely 1 centimetre in diameter, this is a sample of Episkin - a reconstructed human skin which has been approved for testing if cosmetics are likely to irritate the skin. It is the first complete replacement for animal testing.
Although cosmetics and skincare giant L'Oréal has been developing reconstructed skin since the 1980s, the search for animal alternatives became urgent in recent months with the introduction of two pieces of legislation. In December 2006, the European Union introduced REACH, which calls for more than 10,000 chemicals used in cosmetics to be tested for skin irritancy by 2019. At the same time, the EU's cosmetics directive bans the use of animals in such tests from 2009. "Europe is in conflict with itself, calling for both a decrease in animal testing and for significantly more products to be tested," says Estelle Tessonneaud, who developed Episkin with her colleagues at L'Oréal's labs in Lyon, France. "People don't have any choice but to adopt alternative methods."
Tessonneaud's team grows the skin layers on collagen, using skin cells called keratinocytes left-over from breast surgery
Episkin improves on animal testing in other ways too. For example, it can be adapted to resemble older skin by exposing it to high concentrations of UV light. Adding melanocytes also results in skin that can tan, and by using donor cells from women of different ethnicities, the team has created a spectrum of skin colours which they are using to measure the efficiency of sunblock for different skin tones.
"This is a great advance - not just for animals but for people, who will finally have a safety test that is relevant to them," says Kathy Archibald of the anti-vivisection group Europeans for Medical Progress, London. She says animal skin often differs dramatically from human skin in terms of sensitivity.
This a great advance, not just for animals but for people who will finally have a cosmetics safety test that is relevant to them
Chris Flower of the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association in London also welcomes the move. "The fact that it has taken 20 years of research to come to this point shows just how difficult it is to replace animal testing," he says. "Now it has been validated it can potentially be applied, not only to testing new shampoos and cosmetics, but more widely, in medical research."
L'Oréal already has a skin to help study a rare genetic disease that affects so-called "moon children" who are hyper-sensitive to sunlight (Photochemistry and Photobiology, DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-1097.2005.tb01517.x). Tessonneaud and her colleagues are also working on a skin substitute for treating major burns and ulcerations.
Tissue scaffolds can replace knockout mice
Genetically modified animals play a huge role in helping researchers to understand the role of specific genes in human disease. Now, Paul Genever at the University of York, UK, and his colleagues are developing an alternative based on human tissue, that could cut the number of animals used in research.
The team has already grown a 3D "tissue scaffold" from mesenchymal stem cells taken from human bone marrow, and is now trying to "knock out" individual genes in the stem cells, enabling them to discover the precise roles the missing genes play. Genever's team is just one of those to receive a grant from non-animal medical research charity the Dr Hadwen Trust, in Hitchen, UK. Another team, led by Rachel Tribe at King's College London, is attempting to silence genes in human uterine tissue, to better understand why premature labour occurs. "Knockout mice are currently used for this, but mice can give birth to 14 babies at a time, so they aren't a very good model for human pregnancy," says Tribe.
Sophie Petit-Zeman of the Association of Medical Research Charities says that any advance that helps reduce the number of animals needed in research is to be welcomed, although researchers will still need to confirm their results in a whole animal.