Lab grown meat is developing into a multibillion pound industry but scaling up has challenges, explains Liz Fletcher.
The process of creating cultivated – or lab grown – meat is seen as a keyway of decarbonising the global food production system due to its lower land, water and nutrient footprints. Although a nascent industry, the market for cultivated meat products is expected to reach £21.2 billion by 2030. This presents a range of opportunities for early-stage companies to scale up towards commercialisation.
A form of cellular agriculture, lab-grown meat is produced by directly cultivating animal cells in a controlled environment. It is made using the same cell types arranged in the same – or similar – structure as animal tissues, replicating the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat. Singapore became the first country in the world to approve the sale of a cultivated meat product in December 2020. Trials are also currently underway in the USA following Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval at the tail-end of last year.
While not yet licensed for human consumption in the UK, Edinburgh-based Roslin Technologies is an example of a company making progress in this area.
Its aim is to supply the industry with pluripotent stem cells which will enable producers to cultivate meat at a faster rate.
Most recently, with the support of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), Roslin developed a new approach to cell generation that minimises variations between how different batches of cells grow. The new approach has also cut the cost of cell culture media – the medium created to support cellular growth – by 61%.
The next phase for Roslin will be to take its findings forward to larger bioreactors and begin the process of scaling up. For any business, growing from the initial stages of research and development to achieve commercial viability comes with a unique set of challenges, particularly in a relatively new sector like cultivated meat.
From coffee-cup scale to 1,000 litres
Although trials of cultivated meat products have been conducted using standard-size cell culture dishes and flasks, growth at scale requires the use of bioreactors in volumes of up to several thousand litres.
This shift in how the cells are grown introduces added factors, including gas exchange and heat transfer, which are not necessarily a common concern for most cell culture technicians. While these techniques can be adopted from industries, such as cell therapies and recombinant protein production, considerable adaptations are necessary in order to scale up.
There are a variety of bioreactor designs available to advance production, each with potential benefits and caveats, and multiple methods could be used throughout a cultivated meat process.
For animal cell cultures, the continuous stirred tank reactor is most commonly used as it offers greater long-term sterility and reduced bubbling at scale compared to other designs.
Optimising the bioprocess
Consistent with any scaling of an industrialised process, cultivated meat production sometimes requires simplification and, somewhat counterintuitively, scaling down before moving on to larger production. Understanding and controlling viability – the number of health y cells in a sample – is important in creating a dynamic process that is efficient in both energy and raw-material inputs.
Standardising the components of cell culture media enables manufacturers to significantly lower the production costs and improve the quality of cultivated meat. This approach can also be rapidly adopted across international labs, enabling the industry as a whole to work together to scale up.
Cultivated meat production sometimes requires simplification and, somewhat counterintuitively, scaling down before moving on to larger production
Costs can also be lowered by optimising the design and instrumentation of bioreactors, with additional monitoring features helping to achieve maximum cell production capacity per unit. Miniature bioreactors have thrived as a tool for obtaining process-relevant data during the early stages of development.
According to environmental consultants at CE Delft, cultivated meat could be cost competitive with some forms of conventional meat within a decade. The challenge facing cell-based agriculture companies is reaching price parity with competitors already established in the traditional meat industry.
For manufacturers to bring production prices down, they will require a combination of scale, higher yielding and more efficient expression systems, and fewer downstream purification steps at the end of the process.
Along with optimised media, manufacturers can be more cost efficient by lowering spend on cleanrooms – or getting rid of them altogether.
These are commonly used to keep air pollutants controlled during operation and can instead be replaced by using a closed system. This form of processing allows for cell culture to occur in sealed vessels, providing ph ysical barriers to reduce the risk of contamination.
The scaling-up of cultivated meat for commercial purposes is a complex process best achieved through collaboration between biological, chemical, technical and industrial experts. As the world’s population grows, making fundamental changes to the way we produce and consume food will be a crucial factor in reducing the environmental impact of the food chain.
Dr Liz Fletcher is director of business engagement and operations at IBioIC