Lab-grown skin test spots problems with new chemicals

UK researchers have developed a way to test new chemical products on lab-grown skin as an alternative to animal testing.

The test, created at Newcastle University, uses living human skin and immune cells to replicate the reaction of new drugs, cosmetics or household chemicals with the outside of the body and can provide results within two weeks.

The launch of the ‘Skimune’ test, through spin-out firm Alcyomics, follows the recent EU ban on the sale of any cosmetic product tested on animals, but the researchers claim the technology might also help spot problems that animal tests or computer modelling might not pick up.

‘This skin assay offers an accurate and rapid alternative to animal testing and provides the bridge between the laboratory tests for novel drugs and the first stage of clinical trials in humans,’ said Alcyomics founding director and scientific lead Prof Anne Dickinson, in a statement.

‘It is accurate and faster than anything currently around and can save companies time and resources. The test identifies drugs or products which are likely to cause a reaction or just not work effectively in humans.’

The technology was developed from Dickinson’s work on predicting when a patient’s body might reject a bone marrow transplant by testing the reaction of patient skin tissue and donor cells.

The test tissue is created by combining skin samples and immune cells isolated from blood samples taken from the same healthy donor.

Once the chemical is added to the assay, scientists can assess any damage to the microscopic structure of the skin cells but also measure the growth of T cells in response to the chemical.

T cells are behind an immune response known as a cytokine storm, which the body uses to fight infection but can also cause potentially fatal heart rate, breathing and fever problems if unchecked.

‘Our Skimune test would have predicted the terrible outcome at Northwick Park in 2006,’ said Dickinson. ‘Then six men taking part in a clinical trial had severe reactions to a monoclonal antibody resulting in organ failure

‘Previous laboratory and animal research gave no indication that this was likely to occur. Our test would have picked up the risk because it is a skin-based model of the human immune response.’

NIBSC principal scientist Prof Richard Stebbings said: ‘This assay offers a valuable alternative to animal models, used for safety testing of biological medicines and which are often poorly predictive of human responses.’

The development of the Skimune prototype was by supported with a grant from the Technology Strategy Board.