No harm and no farm: How a British biotech company grows leather in a lab

    11 Jul 2024

    For titans of the luxury business with coveted products but a troubled clientele, it may be time to call on Dr Che Connon, a London-based scientist who has pioneered a fabric that guarantees no harm to animals.

    Dr Connon is out to convince the industry that products made from lab-grown leather will appeal to affluent younger age groups.

    “This is a way that the luxury goods brands can keep the quality customers are used to and keep all the skilled artisans they have in leather-making, but starting with a material that has not harmed any animal,” he told The National.

    At the Future Fabrics Expo in London this week – the flagship event of London Climate Action Week – British biotech start-up 3D Bio-Tissues has shown off its material, which is 100 per cent leather produced without harming a single animal.

    The start-up is owned by by biotech company BSF Enterprise, of which Dr Connon is chief executive. The “tissue-engineered skin” showcased by 3DBT is grown in a laboratory solely from the cells of a horse.

    The idea is that lab-grown leather, once production is scaled-up, will eventually be used by the world’s luxury goods makers to craft jackets, shoes and handbags that will be of high quality and in line with customers’ animal welfare values.

    “Generation Z are both uniquely interested in luxury goods, but also very much in tune with environmentalism and animal welfare,” Dr Connon said.

    “You got a growing number of young people thinking, ‘why are we killing animals to survive?’”

    At laboratories in Newcastle, north-east England, researchers with 3DBT – which has also been involved in the creation of cultivated or cultured meat – grow animal cells in dishes.

    This negates the need for raising animals on farms and slaughtering them for their meat and skins to make leather.

    The idea behind the technology is that no animal is harmed, simply because no animal existed.

    In the same way, no animal is farmed, so the technique is also in line with environmental and climate change goals. As no animal is reared, no resources are needed, and thus no carbon is emitted.

    The start-up’s tissue-engineered skin is made using samples collected from an adult female horse following a strict and painless bioethics process.

    This process to produce a hide structure in the lab takes around six weeks and uniquely does not use other supporting materials, such as plastics or cellulose.

    Other techniques often employ structures around which the cells are encouraged to grow, while 3DBT’s method makes use of a patented culture media supplement called City-mix. This is not only cheaper but accelerates tissue growth, says the company.

    The result is a high-quality horse leather that is 100 per cent animal tissue – but no horse lived nor died to make it.

    Its only connection to a real horse is the animal from which the original skin sample was painlessly taken.

    Environmentally-friendly tanning

    But the environmental benefits also extend into the treatment process of animal hides – better known as tanning.

    Normally, the initial stages of tanning, usually called beaming, require an animal hide to be stripped of the top layer of skin, where the hair follicles and fat are found, because leather itself is made from the deeper dermis layer underneath.

    With lab-grown leather, these water and chemical intensive operations don’t apply, said Dr Connon.

    “We don’t need to do that at all,” he said.

    “That bit of the tanning is removed, because we’re just concentrating on growing the dermis, which is the structural element.”

    Plus, the lab-grown leather is “rationally-designed”, meaning the structure of the material itself can be tweaked in order that it be receptive to more environmentally-friendly tanning techniques and solutions.

    “In this case, we say, ‘which tanning chemical would you like to use, which is the most environmentally-friendly?’ and then we can rationally design the skin to make sure it works with that,” Dr Connon said.

    Currently, lab-grown leather is at the proof of concept stage of development, but BSF Enterprise is in talks with several luxury goods makers with a view to scaling up its production.

    The real selling point of the material, Dr Connon says, lies in the fact that it’s no different from high-quality animal hide and, as such, tallies with the methods the craftspeople employed by the luxury companies have always used.

    Nonetheless, it’s early days and it may be a few years until the first lab-grown leather jackets adorn models at Paris Fashion Week.

    But Dr Connon feels as consumers become more ethically aware and attuned to animal welfare, the luxury fashion houses will start to see a rising demand for lab-grown leather.

    “I get the sense that they are very, very keen on finding a true alternative to leather,” he said.

    “They’ve sold high-end leather goods for hundreds of years, so it’s the fabric of their companies.

    “The reason why we haven’t gone any further than we have, is we’re talking to the leading fashion groups about what their specifications are.

    “So, we’re not going to go fully-blown into something large scale and then not meet their criteria. We need the working partnership with them, so they can define exactly the properties they want and the quantities they want, then together we create scalable plants to do so.”


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