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December 14, 2017
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A prototype of the "Victimless Leather" jacket. Source: urbantimes.co.
A Prototype of Stitchless Jacket grown in a Technoscientific Body Newscientist.com
A prototype of a "Victimless Leather" jacket 
being grown in a specially-designed bioreactor. 
Source: Newscientist.com

In 2004, the "Victimless Leather" project was introduced to the public at Perth's John Curtin Gallery during an exhibition that focused on the future of textiles and fashion. There, unsuspecting guests were confronted with the controversial idea of using cells to grow "semi-living" fabric - and reactions were mixed.

"Victimless Leather" is a leather-like material made from immortalised mouse and human cells. Inside a specially designed bioreactor that maintains optimal growing conditions (temperature, supply of nutrients, waste removal, etc…), a biodegradable scaffold that directs the growth of the cells into a three- dimensional shape is "seeded" with the cells. Gradually the polymer biodegrades, and what's left is a stitch-less, coat-like shape - or a miniature "leather" jacket that could fit a mouse.

The project is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, and their research is conducted in the labs of SymbioticA, "an artistic laboratory dedicated to the research, learning, critique and hands-on engagement with the life sciences" which launched in 2000 and is housed within the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology at The University of Western Australia.

It might sound absurd or even disgusting, yet Catts, SymbioticA's director, notes that, "Many people wear leather, but the fact that it is obtained from parts of dead animals seems to be accepted much more than growing semi-living cells into a miniature leather jacket-like shape." Catts underlines that the reference to "Victimless" in the project's title is intentionally ironic: to grow the Victimless Leather jacket, mouse and human cells proliferate in a nutrient-rich solution that contains animal-derived substances, including 20 per cent fetal calf serum (extracted from the blood of an unborn calf).

Nearly 20 years ago, while Catts was studying product design, he realised that biology was becoming more about engineering then science. "If life is becoming a raw material to be engineered [...] the next step is for designers to come in and start to design those biological products that would be engineered by engineers," he told the Urban Times in April last year.

If life is becoming a raw material to be engineered [...] the next step is for designers to come in and start to design those biological products that would be engineered by engineers.

In 1996, Catts and Zurr formed the Tissue Culture and Art Project (TC&A), with the aim of using "tissue technologies as a medium for artistic expression." And such was the duo's purpose behind Victimless Leather; Catts believes the project to be an art work that experiments with society's perception of leather, intending to "[confront] people with the moral implications of wearing parts of dead animals for protective and aesthetic reasons and [the] relationship with living systems manipulated or otherwise." Beyond that, he asks whether tissue engineering is a way to "instrumentalise life as just another raw material for human use?"

In other words, Victimless Leather is not intended to be a viable commercial product. According to Catts, the main problems would be growing the semi-living tissue so that people could actually wear it - among other things, by maintaining its sterility and "feeding" it. Needless to say, this would be difficult to achieve and is still in the realm of science fiction. Moreover the method to obtain the leather-like material would not be cheap - "at best, expensive and technologically excessive luxury products." Not to mention, the consumer appeal of such a product is lacking, to say the least.

Catts also cautions, "when you engage with life, you should never assume that you're going to have full control over the consequences." As evidence of this, a prototype of the jacket shown at the "Design and the Elastic Mind" exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2008, was perceived by many to be a big failure. Instead of the usual combination of mouse-human cells, embryonic mouse cells were used which grew too quickly (and out of control), causing the bioreactor's tubes to clog up. The exhibit's curator, Paola Antonelli, had to step in and turn off the bioreactor, effectively "killing" the jacket.

With the practical issues surrounding the jacket and the reaction of critics and the public, it's unlikely that the Victimless Leather jacket will appear in stores anytime soon (if ever). However, the idea of using tissue engineering to grow consumer goods, be it leather or another material, could be the next frontier of biotech companies sooner than we might think.

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