The nascent cultivated meat industry is growing quickly in terms of the number of companies started, dollars raised, and places where it is grown (Israeli startup Aleph Farms has even grown cultivated meat on the International Space Station!). But the commercialization of cultivated meat at economically viable prices is still a work in progress.
In order to reach cost parity with conventional meat, the cultivated meat industry will require additional participation from scientists in both industry and academia. This heightened scientific lens will help lower the barrier to entry, increase the adoption of new technologies, and spur the innovation necessary to bring cultivated meat further down the cost curve.
Right now there are four critical, interconnected technology areas where scientists can make a huge impact and help meet the needs of the cultivated meat industry: cell line development, cell culture medium, bioreactors and bioprocessing, and scaffolding biomaterials.
Solving the cell line shortage
The first challenge for startups and academics hoping to embark on research in cultivated meat is getting their hands on a stem cell line from an animal species of interest. The reason for this challenge is simple: They often don’t exist. As a result, there is a crucial need to make biorepositories of multiple cell line types from commonly used species, especially those in seafood, publicly available. The Good Food Institute has funded efforts like this, and scientists with experience in cell line engineering can further develop the tools to grow these cell lines more efficiently.
Having these cell lines and tools in place will lower the barrier to entry for the growing number of scientists in academia and industry aiming to start cultivated meat companies and research programs.
Lowering the cost of cell culture medium
The current primary cost driver for cultivated meat production is the cell culture medium—in particular, the added growth factors that assist in cell growth and division. Last year, GFI associate director of science and technology Dr. Liz Specht released a cost analysis highlighting hypothetical scenarios to dramatically lower the cost of cell culture medium using existing technology. An independent team of researchers at Northwestern University recently engineered and produced growth factors in their own lab, demonstrating a 97 percent cost reduction of commercial stem cell media.
However, to make cultivated meat economically viable, there is still a need for additional cost savings in this technology area. This can be achieved in part by creating a robust supply chain of other cell culture media ingredients such as amino acids at food-grade rather than pharmaceutical standards. Amino acids can potentially be sourced from more affordable plant or non-animal (e.g. yeast, microalgae, cyanobacteria) hydrolysates, rather than directly produced via fermentation. The task at hand is for scientists and companies with expertise in formulation optimization to develop low-cost, animal-free media for industry-wide use.
Scaling up bioreactors and bioprocessing strategy
The inception of the cultivated meat industry over the past five years has provided the first incentive to grow animal muscle and fat tissues at the same scales achieved over decades by the pharmaceutical industry to produce biologic drugs—an incredible development by any metric. But the pace of innovation must be accelerated in order to reach similar scales for the cells used in cultivated meat.
To do so, scientists can leverage miniaturized bioreactors in tandem with computer modeling to map the key process parameters for scaling up, thus saving on downstream experimental time and costs. They can also increase productivity by implementing semi-continuous or continuous processing techniques that capitalize on the highest efficiencies at the later stages of the process. Alternative approaches using specialized perfusion bioreactors or 3D microenvironments are highly promising for use in cultivated meat production, as they are capable of growing higher numbers of cells in lower volumes. Together, these approaches can accelerate cultivated meat toward market readiness (and our plates!).
Creating viable scaffolding biomaterials
A challenge shared by tissue engineers and cultivated meat scientists alike is the creation of thick, structured tissues to serve as scaffolds. For cultivated meat, the use of edible or biodegradable scaffolding biomaterials derived from plants (e.g. nanocellulose), fungi (e.g. mycelium), algae (e.g. alginate), or microbes (e.g. yeast-derived chitosan) is favorable as these are already safe to eat. Databases describing their mechanical properties, biocompatibility, and other parameters can assist in the selection of biomaterials for scaffold creation. From there, the challenge is to engineer a scaffold that helps to arrange the fat, muscle, and connective tissues to replicate the texture of meat. This may incorporate technologies such as 3D bioprinting or scaffold modifications that can guide cells into the correct location. Although this may take many years to solve, the prize that awaits—the ability to create the perfect fillet or steak every single time—makes for a compelling challenge.
These are challenges worth solving
The technical challenges at hand are not problems to be faced by the cultivated meat industry alone—they can be solved in collaboration with fields like cell therapy, regenerative medicine, and large-scale fermentation. But to make this a reality, we need an influx of scientists and engineers from interdisciplinary fields to collaboratively leverage their unique skill sets. Once this happens, the possibilities are endless. And the results will significantly benefit human, animal, and planetary health.
For a deeper dive, check out “Meeting the Needs of the Cell-Based Meat Industry” in the October 2019 issue of the Chemical Engineering Process Magazine.