This lab-on-a-chip could lower the cost of cell-based meat

GFI research grant recipient Dr. Ivana Gadjanski is developing a new generation of sensors to monitor nutrients and biomass during cell-based meat production.
Realsense biosensor for cultivated meat production

Imagine a laboratory on a chip only a few centimeters in size. Research on this small of a scale has some major advantages: it is cost-effective, analysis times are fast, and the lab processes are easier to control. In Serbia, Dr. Ivana Gadjanski is using this “scale-down” technique to develop ways to monitor cell-based meat production.

Dr. Gadjanski, a GFI research grant recipient, focuses on microfluidic cell culture. She is developing a new generation of sensors to monitor nutrients and biomass. Using these sensors for cell-based meat production would mean greater efficiency and lower costs, addressing two major barriers to commercialization. Dr. Gadjanski calls it a step towards the “vision of agriculture of the future.”

How do you explain what you’re working on?

Growing meat in the lab is not easy. The living cells need to be kept in similar conditions as in the organism, with regulated nutrients, gasses, temperature, and other factors. The cells are kept in a nutritious medium, in special environments called cultivators, which enable the natural process of growing, dividing, and differentiating to unfold. The challenge is that this medium is very costly. If we could recycle it, we could reduce the overall cost of producing cell-based meat.

Our research develops sensors to monitor how the cells grow in the medium. We can monitor when certain harmful metabolites that the cells generate (like ammonia) are too high and need to be eliminated. We can measure how the biomass (the cells in the cultivator) is increasing over time. This data tells us when to recycle the medium. By doing so, we reduce the overall costs of cell-based meat production.

What is a metabolite? How is it important to cell-based meat?

Metabolites are molecules produced by living cells. Some have specific roles, such as signaling between and within cells. Others can be considered waste-products, especially in a system like a cultivator. Ammonia is one of these products, which can disturb the pH balance in the medium and affect cell growth. Monitoring the level of ammonia during cell-based meat production is one of the key factors for obtaining a better yield.

Why is biomass concentration significant in cell culture?

Monitoring the biomass concentration allows you to estimate if the bioprocess is happening as planned. Real-time monitoring of biomass is actually recommended by the FDA-issued Process Analytical Technology framework. It has significant effects on overall productivity and product quality. Biomass measurements can be used to identify cell subpopulations like viable cells, dead cells, and cells undergoing lysis (breaking open) which is important to know for bioprocess control.

What sparked your interest in researching cell-based meat?   It is a very exciting tissue engineering task, especially with products like steak. I previously worked on cartilage tissue engineering, a tissue made of only one type of cell (though still very difficult to replicate in the lab). I like the challenge of cell-based meat because you need several types of cells such as muscle, fat, and connective tissue. The quantity needed is much higher, which makes everything more complex. And it needs to taste good, something I never had to think about in my previous research. I am also drawn to cultured meat because I used to be a vegetarian. I love animals and was trying not to be the cause of their suffering. However, I did not really enjoy the taste of most vegetarian meat alternatives. I am extremely enthusiastic about making cell-based meat, which looks and tastes like animal meat, without the slaughter and pain.

What can Serbia uniquely contribute to cell-based meat research?

I would say that Serbia is a good test market for consumer acceptance. I read in one article about Serbian cuisine that it “is a true paradise for gluttons, especially those with a carnivorous tooth.” Maybe this is a bit exaggerated, but most traditional Serbian dishes do consist of meat. I am really interested to see how people in Serbia react to cell-based meat and if they would want to try it.

BioSense Institute is a great place to advance cellular agriculture. Our team has strong expertise in microelectronics, microfluidic lab-on-chips, and in developing biosensors. Our “Vision of the Agriculture of the Future” (chart below) will be achieved through partnering with various research groups, the Dutch Wageningen University, and the Serbian Government. We are becoming a European Center of Excellence for Advanced Technologies in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security.  

Biosense vision graphic on the agriculture of the future
Source: BioSense Institute

What do you mean by a scale-down approach? How can a scale-down approach help with scale-up?

Scale-up is not an easy task for cell-based meat production. On an industrial level, it would mean going from cultivators of several liters to large cultivators of several thousand liters. You cannot test a lot of new components in such a system as it would be too expensive. Scale-down is used for the early stages of bioprocess development. You make micro-cultivators where the total volume is in the microliter range. Growing the cells is much cheaper since the volume of the medium is much lower. It’s also possible to test different sensors and arrangements for the chambers where the cells grow. It is a very cost-efficient way to obtain quantitative data, valuable for later stages in development and subsequently for the scale-up.

Has the lab-on-a-chip approach been applied to cell-based meat research before?

I talked to a few researchers using the lab-on-a-chip approach last year. At the 2018 Good Food Conference, I met startup teams in the cell-based meat field who use micro-cultivators in their research. Later that year I went to the 4th International Conference on Cultured Meat in Maastricht, the Netherlands. I met with representatives of companies that make modular cultivators, some based on the lab-on-a-chip approach. I was pleased but not surprised, as a lab-on-a-chip is a very good approach for obtaining results in a cost-effective way.

Cultivating cell-based meat could become cheaper and more efficient thanks to Dr. Gadjanski. Interested in the other winning projects? Check out GFI senior scientist Dr. Erin Rees Clayton’s explanation of all fourteen plant-based and cell-based meat projects and the technical barriers they seek to overcome.

Header image source: JPON Design Studio


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Tara DiMaio