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Damien Hirst
"Away from the Flock"Damien Hirst, 1994

Will 3D printed human skin make animal testing for cosmetics obsolete?


TextNassia Matsa

It may sound like science fiction but the beauty industry is experiencing a makeover and for the first time it’s not at the expense of animals

Back in 2015, L’Oréal announced that it was experimenting with printing human skin tissue on which to test its cosmetics. The French beauty giant – which owns Lancôme and Maybelline, among many others – was the first beauty conglomerate to announce such intentions. The same year, L’Oréal partnered with Organovo, a San Diego-based start-up that designs and creates functional human tissues using bioprinting technology. These 3D printed tissues, which Bloomberg predicts could be a reality by 2020, mimic the form and function of native tissue in the body and testing on them could signal a revolution in the world of cosmetic testing. ‘‘What was once a plot for a science fiction novel is now advancing our scientific research,’’ Taylor Crouch, Organovo’s CEO said to the Financial Times last year.

There are two types of skin tissues that can be created by bioprinting technology, according to Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist and the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. One type of skin tissue is developed with an individual’s own cells and it can be used to treat burns or skin conditions that the subject may have. The second is a regular skin formed using a stock of genetic human cells. Here cells are taken from donor organs and plastic surgery leftovers and then turned into a printable bio-ink. It is this second type of tissue that could one day make animal testing obsolete.

According to PETA, between 100,000-200,000 animals – including rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and mice – suffer and die in the name of beauty every year around the world, although the figures “primarily relate” to animal testing in China, says the charity’s partnerships coordinator, Jennifer White. While the European Union banned the testing of cosmetic products on animals in 1998 and banned the sale of cosmetics whose ingredients had been tested on animals in 2013, there are no such restrictions in China. In the US, meanwhile, only four states have passed laws that ban animal testing (California, New Jersey, New York and Virginia) making the laws more open to creative interpretation, warns Professor Andrew Knight, scientific advisor to Animal Welfare Party and professor of animal welfare at the University of Winchester. It has been estimated by Cruelty Free International that thousands of animals die from cosmetics animal testing each year in the US.

“Apart from the obvious argument against animal-testing another case against it is that 92% of the drugs which were tested on animals and deemed safe for humans, failed in human trials.”  

The more relaxed animal testing regulations in China and the US means that brands often outsource their animal testing to these countries. L'Oréal, for example, claims it “no longer tests its ingredients on animals and no longer tolerates any exception to this rule.” However, the devil is in the detail, and it goes on to say: “Certain health authorities may nevertheless decide to conduct animal tests themselves for certain cosmetic products, as it is still the case in China." In other words, L’Oréal is still allowing its products to be animal tested in certain countries. In response to this, PETA’s Jennifer White has said, “PETA recognises that L'Oréal is taking significant steps towards making kinder products, and we eagerly anticipate a day when the company ends all testing on animals – which it currently pays the Chinese government to conduct in order to sell its products in China.”

Apart from the obvious argument against animal-testing – the cruelty involved in the process of it – another case against it is that 92% of the drugs which were tested on animals and deemed safe for humans, failed in human trials. In this light, as Knight argues, "it makes sense to test beauty products on 3D printed human skin rather than animals as it is more ethical as well as more reliable." Furthermore, testing on 3D printed skin will also end up costing less. “Should you run animal testing, you are looking to two to three years before you receive results, while with tests on 3D printed human skin we are having results in a matter of two weeks.” And of course, the less time spent the less money you funnel into it. While we don’t have the exact costs for testing on 3D printed human skin as we are in its early stages, it is estimated that the US is spending $12 billion on animal testing for research purposes per year. Using ‘in vitro’ (3D skin) methods would reduce the cost significantly.

So will it ever be feasible for animal testing to become obsolete for medical or cosmetic purposes? It’s going to take time for artificial human skin to be made on an affordable scale. Printing human skin with living cells sounds like science fiction but it is science after all, and yes, it could potentially solve the problem of animal testing. Here's hoping.

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