Shoes made from leather grown in a lab are on the horizon after a biotech company became the first to successfully culture fully natural animal skin.
3D Bio-Tissues has grown squares of tissue measuring 10cm by 10cm (4in x 4in) – a major milestone in producing natural leather without the need for animals.
The firm is eventually hoping to grow “skin by the metre”. It is already in discussions with several established consumer brands who are keen to produce goods with the same durable and aesthetic qualities as leather, but without the ethical pitfalls.
Dr Che Connon, the chief executive of 3D Bio-Tissues, said he hoped that within five years, the technology would have scaled up sufficiently to bring artificial leather products to market.
“Our ambition is to be able to create skin by the metre. We know we have the basic principles there to do that,” he said.
“It’s now about bringing in partners to develop that commercially, and building the plants that can do it at scale.
“People who can afford high-end fashion are becoming more environmentally aware, so I think fashion brands are taking it very seriously and are looking to address things like animal welfare.
“This is the ultimate step for them because you can create leather and do all the things that you can do with leather without actually harming any animals in the process.”
3D Bio-Tissues, which also cultures meat, is the first to grow products without using a scaffold to coax the tissue into the correct alignment.
Instead, experts have managed to recreate the same biochemical and biophysical cues that occur in the body, to make the cells spontaneously arrange themselves in the correct pattern.
It means that there is no need to use animal-derived serums to help kick off the growth process or blends and fillers that other synthetic meat companies need, and which prevent products from feeling natural.
Key to the process is a special supplement invented by the company called “City-Mix” which mimics a crucial process in tissue growth called “macromolecular crowding”, whereby large molecules force growth factors closer together.
Growth factors are naturally occurring substances capable of stimulating cell proliferation and sometimes differentiation.
Without the need of artificial scaffolds or fillers, the leather that is produced is 100 per cent animal tissue.
Dr Connon said: “Products from other companies often do not feel or taste right because they are not identical to natural tissue because of how they are produced.
“We are the first to use this scaffold-free approach to grow leather, meaning that there is nothing there to direct the cells, and nothing retained within the product.
“The result is you’re getting tissues with a natural feel. It’s exactly the same because it’s generated in the same way as it is generated in the body
“Once the cells have received initial information, then they then take it upon themselves and do an awful lot of the work themselves.”
Last week the company, which was spun off from Newcastle University, was voted University Spinout of the Year at the North East Innovation Awards.
Describing what the artificial skin feels like, Richard Gouveia, 3D Bio-Tissues’ chief scientific officer, said: “You can actually manipulate it and take it out and handle it and it’s already quite supple and tough. It retains moisture well, just like normal skin.
“Obviously, the tanning process makes it tougher and more and more durable, and you can toughen it up more or less depending on if you were making a saddle, compared to making a handbag or shoes.
“With leather, you have different grains for different animals, so you could recreate those patterns, or it could be entirely smooth which you don’t get in nature.”