Down to Earth

Recycling human skin: An alternative to animal testing?

Genoskin collects skin donated from plastic surgery patients.
Genoskin collects skin donated from plastic surgery patients. © FRANCE 24

For more than half a century, humans have required all new drugs to be tested on animals. Today, ethical alternatives are emerging. But can they replace animal studies? The Down to Earth team takes a closer look.

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A biotech company has developed a method to keep human skin alive for up to a week, long enough to conduct a wide range of pharmaceutical and cosmetic tests.

Genoskin collects skin donated from plastic surgery patients. This morning the company's laboratory in Toulouse is working with skin from a 44-year-old patient who had a tummy tuck, or abdominoplasty, at a nearby hospital.

"Otherwise it would be surgical waste destined to be destroyed," explains Eric Merle, who runs commercial operations for Genoskin.

The sample behaves like skin on the body: it stays at 37°, it's supple and can even heal if it's hurt.

"We only have a small piece of skin but it contains a phenomenal quantity of cell types... we can look at the immune response, the scarring process, the way skin alters a drug," Merle adds.

Animal testing in Europe

In 2013, Europe banned the sale of cosmetics tested on animals but every year almost 10 million mice, rats, rabbits and dogs are used in laboratories for research and testing.

A series of standard tests requires up to 12,000 animals and can take years to complete.

Since the 1990s, significant effort has been made to regulate animal testing under the principle of 3Rs: replace the use of animals with other methods, reduce their numbers and refine techniques to minimise animal suffering.

The end of animal research?

Every time a drug is developed for human use in Europe, it must include experiments with animals. Animal testing has played a role in some of the most important medical breakthroughs in history.

"If we look at the list of Nobel Prize winners in medicine and physiology since the beginning of the century, the vast majority of winners relied on the use of animal research," explains Ivan Balansard, an animal welfare officer at France's national research centre, CNRS.  

Inside CNRS laboratories in Marseille, drugs are tested on rodents genetically modified for research. Animal suffering is kept to a minimum, with alternatives used when possible.

Balansard describes Genoskin's approach as extremely ingenious. It does however have some limitations.

"Take the example of melanoma which is a very complex disease. It involves the failure of the immune system and includes other factors outside the skin," he says. '"And when a melanoma metastasizes, for example, in the liver or other organs, then of course skin cells will not be sufficient."

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