Cultured meat - food for thought

Cultured meat is rapidly emerging alongside plant-and microorganism-based alternative meat products as a future ‘clean meat’.  It is made by growing populations of animal cells, often skeletal muscle cells from cows and pigs, by culturing them in vitro.

So-called cellular agriculture is widely recognised as a promising, ethically-sound and more ecologically-friendly means to satisfy the world’s increasing demand for meat.  Studies have suggested that lab-grown meat will use a fraction of the land, water and antibiotics used in traditional agricultural practices, and will be associated with dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions.  

And there’s a real appetite.  US-based start-ups Just and Memphis Meats have already attracted significant investment, and the government in Singapore, home to cultured crustacean meat start-up Shiok Meats, recently allocated substantial funds to R&D in this area.

Considerable progress has already been made in reducing the costs associated with the production of cultured meat products.  The first lab-grown hamburger was produced by Prof. Mark Post’s group at Maastricht University in 2013 at a cost of €250,000.  Less than 6 years on, Prof. Post, founder of Mosa Meat, says that a 140 gram burger can now be made for €500.

Much of the existing equipment, reagents and techniques used to produce cultured meat derive from those developed for the in vitro culture of animal cells for basic cellular biological and medical research, in particular in the field of regenerative medicine. 

Research and development efforts for producers of cultured meat are similar to those working in regenerative medicine and adoptive cellular therapies – growing the largest possible population of cells of a particular type from a given starting population, in the shortest period of time, at the lowest possible cost, with minimum variability within and between expanded populations.

In particular, key technical challenges for the producers of cultured meat include increasing the extent to which animal tissue-resident stem cells divide in vitro in order to generate sufficient quantities of cells, and developing techniques for growing and differentiating multipotent progenitor cells in order to minimise the need to add expensive growth factors, and without genetic modification of the cells in culture (which brings with it additional regulatory concerns).  Other obstacles include developing appropriate culture media and techniques for growing cells from organisms and tissues where there are no well-established reagents and procedures.

Those producers looking beyond the production of minced meat-like products to articles more closely resembling animal tissue face greater challenges still.  This will likely  involve growing cells of different kinds together, and using physical and chemical stimuli to induce the cells in culture to interact with one another as they do in the animal body.  3D printing may be used to achieve the correct arrangement of the different cell types; it has already been used to produce a plant protein products with a flesh-like texture.

Solutions to these technical challenges for producers of cultured meat present a huge commercial opportunity.  Even modest improvements to existing technologies could be very significant as we move ever closer to cultured meat products hitting the supermarkets.  Patents relating to new or improved techniques for culturing animal cells/tissue in vitro, growth media/additives, culture equipment, and methods for processing the cultured meat products could be enormously valuable.  Food for thought.

Read more about Cellular Agriculture, and the kinds of patent claims we might begin to see, in our blog here