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When infections were detected on Danish and Dutch mink farms during the corona crisis, millions of animals had to be culled. Opposition to the breeding of fur animals was voiced. In the Netherlands, it was then decided to put an end to fur farming.

The breeding of fur animals is cruel to the animals. And according to PETA, it also represents one of the largest threats to the climate of our time. Both the production of feed and the nitrate-containing excretion of the fur animals on farms are questionable, according to the animal protection organization.

Now, several luxury fashion luxury labels have also announced that they want to do without fur in the future. For animal protection organizations, this is a major success. Because “fur is the epitome of luxury, so there will always be people who want to show their status to the outside world,” says Maria Zakurnaeva. She is the Chief Executive Officer of Furoid SE, currently being founded, and used to work in the fashion industry herself. In addition, she says, fur’s high thermal performance also plays a role. In regions with temperatures as low as 50 below zero, there is no alternative to real furs and skins, she said, because a down jacket does not provide sufficient warmth. In addition, down jackets are made of petroleum-based plastics and down, and are therefore neither sustainable nor cruelty-free.

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Breeding animals for their fur could become obsolete

But even if breeding animals for their fur is banned, the fashion industry will not have to do without furs and skins in the long term. Several research groups around the world are already working on a cell-based alternative from the lab. If the start-up Furoid SE has its way, the laboratory will be the only possible source of furs and skins with real fur animal hair. It is not yet clear when a market-ready solution can be expected.

A multidisciplinary team led by Chief Scientific Director Professor Sue Gibbs of the Free University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, has previously grown human hair follicles in the laboratory. Now it has further developed this process to enable the growing of animal furs and skins in the lab. The proof-of-concept has already been achieved: the results have already been successfully replicated in vitro.

The first bioprinted collagen piece with integrated hair follicles (c) Furoid

Stem cells from endangered species of fur-bearing animals

The researchers use cells from various vertebrates (Vertebrata). Examples are chinchilla, mink or leopard. Stem cells can be obtained from a healthy fur animal or from a cell line. Furoid focuses on endangered and commercial species. They are building their own stem cell database from induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells.

IPS cells are pluripotent stem cells created by artificially reprogramming non-pluripotent somatic (body-related) cells. Their properties closely resemble those of natural stem cells. Whether IPS cells match natural stem cells in all their properties remains to be seen.

The first reprogrammed IPSC (induced pluripotent stem cells) in November 2017 (c) Furoid SE.

These IPS cells are cryogenically preserved, that is, at extremely low temperatures. This way the researchers are making an important contribution to animal welfare and conservation science. The beginning was made with mink, which are still being bred commercially. According to Furoid SE, between 40 and 85 million mink are slaughtered annually.

Tanning and dyeing at the cellular level

The startup works with blockchain technology and DNA tagging to ensure a secure record for the biotech-produced furs. Each fur from the lab is tagged with a unique pre-coded genetic signature combination. This allows it to be easily distinguished from products from farmed fur animals or poachers. The technology is unique in that it eliminates the need for the conventional process of tanning and dyeing because these characteristics can be engineered at the cellular level. This makes furs from the lab even more environmentally friendly. Not only does the breeding of fur animals become obsolete, it also eliminates a production process that could pollute the environment with high water consumption and possible contaminants.

In vitro hair follicles on collagen, NFT- and DNA-tagged. (c) Furoid SE

Photo: The world’s first in vitro hair follicle inseparably linked to collagen. Prototype 1.0 is NFT and DNA tagged. On display for the first time at Future Fabrics Expo 9 1/2 London, from June 22 to July 2.

To prove the feasibility of the patented solution, however, some questions must still be answered, Zakurnaeva explains, “Human hair has to be transplanted into the body. This is not the case with hair from fur animals. This means that it is somewhat easier with regulations, but much more difficult in development.” During the COVID-19 crisis, her team conducted research at the prestigious Wageningen University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in the Netherlands. But because of pandemic-related closures, it returned to Germany ahead of schedule. Now they are considering moving their research to the United States.

Vegan nutrient solution would be major breakthrough

Since the product is expected to end up being vegan, the fur animals’ hair follicles are not planted on leather, but on collagen. To grow, the cells need a nutrient solution made from an extract of calves, which is very expensive. This means that this nutrient solution is not vegan and must be replaced. Finding a suitable alternative would be a major breakthrough, Zakurnaeva explains.

A SEM microscope image of the first printed prototype including visible dermal papillae. (c) Furoid SE

Photo: The first printed prototype including visible dermal papillae under the SEM microscope (scanning electron microscope).

Although the hair is the biggest challenge, other factors are also being researched, such as the basal layer that holds the hair in place. “We are wondering whether this layer should actually be made of collagen or whether perhaps another material is more suitable. If we use collagen, we face the challenge of making it durable. It iis also still an open question what properties the hair should have, meaning how it should react to the human body in terms of heat retention versus heat release, for example,” says Zakurnaeva.

Too big for a fashion company

Financing is still needed to complete the project – and that’s not proving so easy. The innovation required is too big to be used exclusively by a fashion group or investors, Zakurnaeva says. The company would rather make it available to the mass market. An ideal solution would be to obtain grants or donations from philanthropic organizations or investor groups with long-term sustainability investment goals.

An alternative funding scenario could also be a licensing model from pharmaceutical biotechnology. In this case, evaluation licenses would amount to at least an annual fee or a maximum of 0.5 % of annual gross sales. This would be a democratic approach because it would also allow small brands to participate in the industrial upscaling phase.

Also interesting: Research with 3D cell culture system instead of animal testing