For the first time, scientists have been able to create an artificial epidermis in the lab. This is an exciting breakthrough in and of itself, but could it also mean that an end to product testing on animals is in sight?
Led by a team at Kings College London (KCL) and published this month in the journal Stem Cell Reports, scientists have employed what are known as pluripotent stem cells to generate their lab grown epidermis, or the thin outermost layer of skin. Plurpipotent stems cells are those special cells that can grow into a variety of different cells for different functions and, because of this, are particularly ripe for scientific advance.
Generating the epidermis was achieved by provoking the stem cells into creating layer upon layer of skin cells (keratinocytes) that were then exposed to a number of different levels of humidity in order to create a weathered epidermis that is in function virtually identical to human skin. When the scientists took biopsies of the skin cells, they found that there was no significant difference in structure or function when compared to our own outermost layer of skin.
While researchers have previously found it difficult to generate a functional lab grown epidermis, the researchers believe that because this lab grown skin is now virtually identical to human skin and so can very easily be generated for commercial use, there should be no barrier to using the skin for commercial cosmetic, detergent and drug testing.
Dr Dusko Ilic, who led the Kings College team, explained why this lab grown skin has significant advantages: “Human epidermal equivalents representing different types of skin could also be grown, depending on the source of the stem cells used, and could thus be tailored to study a range of skin conditions and sensitivities in different populations.”
This also points to how the new lab grown skin could help to replace some animals for drug research experiments. For instance, the layers of skin could be artificially affected with different skin ailments like eczema so that researchers can study the conditions and learn more about them. Obviously, if lab animals could be replaced, this would spare a great deal of pain and suffering while still advancing scientific knowledge. It’s important to stress, however, that no time frame has yet been given for when (or even if) the artificial epidermis might be phased in for cosmetics testing, though there are hopes that it could be done relatively quickly.
As such, animal welfare advocates have welcomed the research. The Humane Society International’s research and toxicology director Troy Seidle is quoted as saying: “This new human skin model is superior scientifically to killing rabbits, pigs, rats or other animals for their skin and hoping that research findings will be applicable to people — which they often aren’t, due to species differences in skin permeability, immunology, and other factors.”
Prior to this, there have been alternatives to animal testing available. For instance, artificial skin irritation tests, where previously animals like rabbits were exposed to a product to see if the skin blisters, burns, or has any other reaction, are already available on the market, but in many areas of the world the cosmetics industry has defaulted to using animals due to both cost and the argument that animal testing gives a truer picture of the risk to humans. Both arguments are heavily disputed by animal welfare advocates.
In March of this year, the European Union banned the sale of all animal-tested cosmetics and their ingredients after significant grassroots pressure from consumers who said they didn’t want products that had caused animals to suffer. Despite this, the cosmetics industry fought the ban and has said it will continue to fight when animal welfare advocates do as planned and press for a global ban on animal testing for cosmetics. The changes in the EU do not cover animal testing for products like detergents or for drug testing, but it has been treated as a significant step nonetheless.
The United States does not mandate that cosmetics be tested on animals before sale, but without specific legislation to dissuade from animal testing many companies still engage in this practice despite the fact that there are alternatives, some as easy as using chemicals and ingredients that already have a proven safety record.
In stark contrast to the EU’s move to ban animal tested cosmetic products, as of this year China has mandated that, alongside its current practice of testing cosmetics on animals, all cosmetics generated by outside companies must be tested on animals prior to sale within the country, much to the outrage of many animal welfare groups and wider international concerns about China’s animal rights record. Brazil has a similar rule in place.
This might mean that even if companies do not test on animals for sale in the EU, they might still test on animals so they can sell their products in other markets. That’s incredibly frustrating and highlights the difficulty that we face moving forward and trying to save animals from ridiculous cosmetic testing practices.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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