25 July 2007
Episkin from scratch
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 (see Diagram). The team can test the safety of cosmetics by simply smothering the skin in the product. They can then check the proportion of cells that have been killed off by adding a yellow chemical called MTT which turns blue in the presence of living tissue. "To be validated we had to show that we could reproduce results as effectively as animal tests," says Patricia Pineau, scientific director at L'Oréal. Independent tests showed that in some cases Episkin was able to predict more accurately how a person would react to products than animal tests, she says.
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"
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.
From issue 2614 of New Scientist magazine, 25 July 2007, page 14
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.
A new safety test for cosmetics using human skin grown in the lab is
set to spare thousands of rabbits and mice a life of pain and misery.