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ThermoPIGs: Synthetic gelatin

Dr Sam Aspinall - University of Hetfordshire

Dr Sam Aspinall

University of Hertfordshire

Animals to be replaced: Pigs, rats and cows

Dr Sam Aspinall is a lecturer in Pharmaceutics at the University of Hertfordshire. His research focuses on the development of gel-like substances called polymers that have a wide range of uses. In this pilot study, Sam will create new animal-free synthetic gelatin he calls Thermoresponsive Polymers Imitating Gelatins (ThermoPIGs), which could be used to replace animal-derived gelatins.

 

Gelatin

pig farm industry farming

65 million pigs are used in gelatin production each year

You may have come across gelatin in the form of jelly or in your favourite chewy sweets, but did you know it is widely used across the research and healthcare industries too? From forming the soft capsules of medicines to perfecting the texture of ointments and cosmetics, gelatin is hidden in many products we use daily.

Gelatin is made by slowly heating collagen, a protein responsible for tissue elasticity (stretchiness) that is taken from the skin, tendons, ligaments and bones of pigs, cows and even rats. When heated for long periods of time, collagen becomes the thick, jelly-like substance known as gelatin.

The global demand for gelatin is predicted to be around 650kg a year, 80% of which currently comes from pig skin. This production is estimated to use an eyewatering 65 million animals... So, what are the alternatives?

Animal-free alternatives

Plant-based setting agents such as pectin or Carrageenan are long established alternatives to gelatin in food, an easy swap to make foods vegetarian or vegan. However, making the switch in the research industry is not quite so easy.

Gelatin is favoured in many types of experiments because its consistency can be changed by temperature (it is thermoresponsive), a characteristic that is hard to replicate in artificial gelatin. There are artificial gelatins already available on the market, however most of them are made using animal-derived base products, so there is need to create a completely animal-free version.

Dr Sam Aspinall is a lecturer in Pharmaceutics at the University of Hertfordshire. His research focuses on the development of gel-like substances called polymers that have a wide range of uses. In this pilot study, Sam will create new animal-free synthetic gelatin he calls Thermoresponsive Polymers Imitating Gelatins (ThermoPIGs), which could be used to replace animal-derived gelatins.

Synthetic gelatin

Sam has created synthetic gelatin known as Thermoresponsive Polymers Imitating Gelatins, or ThermoPIGs. These innovative gelatin alternatives can replace animal-derived gelatin for many uses in research, including for the growth of cells on a scaffold. As they do not contain animal-derived biomaterials, ThermoPIGs have a lower risk of bacterial contamination, give consistent results and can be used in human-specific experiments.

Over 15 months, Sam will build on his initial work to find out which of his synthetic gelatin act most similarly to animal-derived gelatin, including to see if they can form stiff gels at room temperature and melt when heated. These will then be tested to see whether they can be used for shipping human cells at room temperature. Currently, cells are frozen when they’re shipped, and this can change the way they work and lead to misleading experimental results. If synthetic gelatin can keep cells stable when they’re shipped at room temperature, this will lead to better quality research with more reliable results, improving benefits for patients while eliminating the need for animal gelatin use.

The impact of this research

A key outcome of this project will be to find out if ThermoPIGs can be used to ship cells at room temperature.

Sam plans to patent the ThermoPIGs technology, create a spin-out company and apply for further funding to continue refining the product. He eventually hopes to increase production capacity and commercialise the product for large-scale distribution, with the potential to save the lives of millions of animals.