L’Oreal makes cosmetics and hair colour. It also makes skin. Human skin, created in a lab, so it can test its products without using people or animals. Now it’s talking about printing the stuff, using 3D bio printers that will spit out dollops of skin into nickel-sized petri dishes. The idea is to produce skin more quickly and easily using what is essentially an assembly line developed with Organovo, a San Diego bio printing company. Such a technique would allow the French cosmetics company to do more accurate testing, but it also has medical applications—particularly in burn care.
L’Oreal already has a massive lab in Lyon, France, to produce its patented skin, called Episkin, from incubated skin cells donated by surgery patients. The cells grow in a collagen culture before being exposed to air and UV light to mimic the effects of aging. Organovo pioneered the process of bio printing human tissues, most notably creating a 3-D-printed liver system. Both parties benefit from the partnership: L’Oreal gets Organovo’s speed and expertise, and Organovo gets funding and access to L’Oreal’s comprehensive knowledge of skin, acquired through many years and over $1 billion in research and development.
Guive Balooch, who runs L’Oreal’s in-house tech incubator, says that the bio printing will be done primarily for research purposes. Balooch approached Organovo after seeing its human liver model. While the two companies still need to settle on an exact plan for the skin samples, the bio printing process for epidermis will be roughly similar to that of the liver. It happens in three steps says Michael Renard, a VP at Organovo. Once scientists have collected the human cells from the various companies that harvest and sell them, they use a proprietary in-house technology to turn the cells into a “bio-ink” that feeds into the bio printers. The actual manufacturing isn’t all that different from what you might see with a standard 3D printer.
For now, l’Oreal will work with Organovo to improve the quality of 3D bio printed skin. But the ultimate goal is to automate the process, speeding production, increasing output, and in the end, hopefully lowering cost. Dermatologists seem to agree with this partnership but some issues have to be fairly defined: “I think the science behind it – using 3D printing methods with human cells – sounds plausible, I can understand why you would do it for severe burns or trauma but I have no idea what the cosmetic industry will do with it” Adam Friedmann, a consultant dermatologist at the Harley Street dermatology clinic, says.
It’s not known exactly how Oranovo will work with l’Oreal, but its current process of printing tissue is a complex process. As Michael Renard says “That’s a vague start, but these things —you know, the rapid manufacturing of human flesh—don’t happen overnight”.