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Gold-Plated Onions and 3D-Printed Skin — the Next Wave of Human Tissue Technology?

Every day seems to bring new uses for 3D printing – earlier this week, NASA announced a competition to design 3D printing settlements for deep space. Now, L’Oréal has revealed plans to 3D print human skin.

The cosmetics giant has joined forces with bioengineering startup Organovo, a company that “designs and creates multicellular, dynamic, and functional human tissues to create artificial human skin to use in product testing.” This is the first partnership with a cosmetic company for the startup, which claims it has already 3D-printed a human liver.

The process begins with “bio-ink” — a substance made of human cells, stem cell sources and donated tissue. Then, “the tissue is printed into a matrix, where co-printed gel holds the form or negative spaces needed in the printing process but is removed within 24 hours, leaving behind a 100 percent cellular tissue,” Guive Balooch, Global VP of L’Oréal’s tech incubator, told Allure.

The final product will closely mimic human skin, making it ideal for testing toxicity and efficacy.

This isn’t L’Oréal’s first venture into skin production. In the 1980s, the company started farming derma in an effort to avoid animal testing. At its Lyon, France labs it has three Olympic-sized swimming pools dedicated to growing and analyzing human tissue. According to Bloomberg, L’Oréal uses about half of that tissue and sells the rest to pharmaceutical companies and rivals in the cosmetics industry.

Until now, the standard procedure has been to take skin samples from tissues donated by plastic surgery patients. The cells are then placed in trays, fed a special diet, and exposed to biological signals that mimic those of actual skin.

"We create an environment that's as close as possible to being inside someone's body," Balooch says. It takes about a week for the samples to form, he adds, "because the skin has different layers and you have to grow them in succession."

The Organovo partnership hopes to speed up and automate skin production within the next five years. Research for the project will take place in Organovo's labs and L’Oréal's new California research center. L’Oréal will provide skin expertise and initial funding, while Organovo will provide the technology.

L’Oréal will have exclusive rights to the 3D-printed skin developed with Organovo for uses related to non-prescription skin care products. Organovo will retain rights to the tissue models for efficacy testing of prescription drugs, toxicity tests, and the development and testing of therapeutic or surgically transplanted tissues.


Meanwhile, in Taiwan, researchers recently made a breakthrough in artificial muscle development when they realized that nature already invented the material they wanted to create: The cell structure of an onion is surprisingly similar to real muscle; the filmy layer under the outer shell is stretchy and responsive to electricity, allowing it to remain soft and bendable while it's contracting.

However, getting the onion skin to behave as muscle was no easy feat. According to Verge, the researchers freeze-dried the skin to remove internal water and dipped it in dilute sulfuric acid to make the skin more elastic. Then the skin was dipped in two layers of gold and an electrode was attached.

The resulting machine is impressive. The upper portions of the skin expand under low voltages, bending the muscle downward, but contract under higher voltages, curving the muscle upward. The team built a pair of onion tweezers by combining two muscles that could pick up a tiny ball of cotton.

"We still don't fully understand the structure of the cell walls and its associated properties," said Wen-Pin Shih, a mechanical engineer who worked on the project. "We're just reporting what we have so far to exchange ideas."

If successful, the artificial muscle could be invaluable to the soft robotics world, which focuses on malleable bots that won’t damaging their surroundings. So far, the bots are limited to simple motor functions such as contracting, expanding, and rotating, but robotics experts hope that artificial muscle technology might one day combine all three of those functions into a single, all-purpose muscle.

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