The confluence of the business and scientific interests and animal rights have helped spur the development of EpiSkin and EpiDerm. And while reducing animal testing makes good business sense, it's also giving companies a valuable public relations boost.
The cosmetics industry, in particular, has been the target of animal cruelty charges stemming from skin tests. Images of rabbits having various substances applied to their shaved skin to see if they develop irritations, corrosion or other harmful effects have led to public outrage. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans are "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about animals used in research. A Pew Research poll taken the same year found that 50 percent of American adults oppose the use of animals in research.
The condemnation has fostered legislation, too. Animal testing for cosmetics has been banned in the European Union, Israel, India, Norway, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand and, most recently, Taiwan. In the United States the FDA requires animal testing of cosmetics sold in countries that still demand it by law, China being the prime example. Most major cosmetics companies, including L'Oréal, have discontinued animal testing unless it's required by law.
Even so, several animal-rights groups, including the Humane Society and New England Anti-Vivisection Society, have organized "cruelty free" shopping campaigns and guides. They've formed the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics, which promotes a comprehensive standard and an internationally recognized Leaping Bunny logo. Separately, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) maintains a cruelty-free shopping database on its website that identifies companies that do and don't use animal testing.
The cosmetics industry is the largest market for EpiDerm, reported Bachelor. But its use is expanding to other sectors "as companies are trying to develop more cost-effective methods for in vitro screenings, both as an alternative to animal testing and as a prior screening to their clinical work."
It's difficult to estimate the impact that EpiSkin and EpiDerm have on reducing animal testing and related deaths. In the United States, for instance, animal use per endpoint is not publicly available, said Amy Clippinger, director of PETA's regulatory testing department. Clippinger has extrapolated data available from the U.K., however, indicating that the number of animals used for skin irritation and corrosion testing worldwide has gone down significantly over the past 15 years.
Through its International Science Consortium, PETA collaborates with researchers in cosmetics and other industries to promote non-animal testing, Clippinger said. The organization teamed with MatTek in 2015 on a contest for researchers to suggest ways to use EpiDerm to reduce such experiments.
Lab-produced skin is just the first breakthrough in this emerging biotech market. MatTek already produces and sells other skin products, as well as 3-D tissue models related to the human eye, mouth, airways and intestines. "We're also looking toward organizing various tissue models in a 'cross-talk' system in order to evaluate the effects of something you put on a skin in terms of liver toxicity and absorption by the small intestine," MatTek's senior scientist Bachelor said.
The next step is to connect EpiDerm to so-called organs on a chip, a revolutionary technology under way to synthesize an entire liver, brain, kidney or other human organ onto a microchip the size of a microscope slide. The Holy Grail is to link together an entire human body on a series of chips.
— By Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com