Growing human skin in a petri dish isn't the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the name L'Oréal. Yet the French cosmetics giant, whose other brands include Lancôme, Maybelline New York, Ralph Lauren Fragrances and The Body Shop, also produces gelatinous, dime-sized blobs called EpiSkin.
The company's researchers use the lab-produced tissue to test the efficacy of ingredients and tolerance of products before they go to market. This is part of a larger, ongoing effort within the scientific community to reduce and replace the use of live rabbits, mice and other laboratory animals in tests and experiments.
But besides sparing lab animals pain and suffering, and often death, EpiSkin also represents a revenue source for L'Oréal, which sells the product to cosmetics, pharmaceutical, chemical and household products manufacturers that conduct similar tests. Simultaneously, the company is tempering the public outcry over animal testing that's plagued the cosmetics industry, among others, for decades.
Meanwhile, L'Oréal is partnering with San Diego-based Organovo to engineer 3-D bioprinting of human skin. "We're also developing technologies that will 3-D print hair follicles in vitro," said Bouez. "We see great potential for this in terms of tissue engineering and the development of future products."
The proliferation of 3-D reconstructed tissue models, as EpiSkin is technically known, in product testing is relatively recent, coinciding with wider regulatory approval, yet the biotechnology behind it dates back to the 1980s. Among the pioneers is MatTek, based in Ashland, Massachusetts, and founded in 1985 by two chemical engineering professors from MIT. In 1993 the private company launched its first commercial product, EpiDerm, which today is EpiSkin's major competitor.
MatTek produces about two adult humans' worth of skin every week at its Massachusetts facility and another site in Slovakia. The raw material for EpiDerm is actual human skin cells retrieved from surgical waste following cosmetic surgeries and circumcisions. Cells are also procured through commercial sources or tissue banks.
"We start with cells in a petri dish," a process generally referred to as in vitro, said senior scientist Michael Bachelor. Over several weeks the cells are fed nutrients "to promote the growth of the tissue to resemble what it's like in the normal human body," he added. EpiDerm is sold in kits, comprising 24 individual tissues, for about $1,000.
L'Oréal acquired the EpiSkin biotechnology in 1997 and has since used it to test hundreds of ingredients and finished products, including L'Oréal Paris pure clay mask and La Roche-Posay's Lipikar body milk. "EpiSkin models are also available to the global scientific community to support academic and corporate research and development activities across industries," said Charbel Bouez, vice president of advanced research at L'Oréal's America Zone and president of EpiSkin.
In 2011, L'Oréal opened its Predictive Evaluation Center in Lyon, France. The 12,000-square-foot facility, staffed by more than 60 scientists, grows more than 100,000 human skin tissue samples annually, most about 0.5 square centimeter in size. Last year L'Oréal invested more than $900 million in research and innovation.
The use of animals for all sorts of product testing, as well as for medical, military, agricultural and other areas of research, has long been a contentious issue. On one side are proponents who contend that animal testing is essential to human health and safety, pointing to numerous lifesaving discoveries. Opponents counter by claiming that differences between animal and human biology make many tests unreliable. Perhaps more powerful, though, are the moral and ethical quandaries that animal testing raise, and ultimately whether animals have rights that supersede the benefits to humans.
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