Things have been very hush-hush over at Modern Meadow since it was disclosed in August that the company had received funding from PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s foundation to 3-D bioprint meat and leather.

But in an exclusive interview, company cofounder and CEO Andras Forgacs has broken the silence and revealed some details about Modern Meadow’s goals. Their first project? In vitro leather production. 

“Our emphasis first is not on meat, it’s on leather,” Forgacs says. “The main reason is that, technically, skin is a simpler structure than meat, making it easier to produce.”

The company also needs to acclimate potential customers to the idea of tissue-engineering products. It turns out that, initially at least, many consumers might not want to eat a modern technological marvel. “Anecdotally, we’ve found that around 40 percent of people would be willing to try cultured meat,” he says. “There’s much less controversy around using leather that doesn’t involve killing animals.”

They will work on growing meat in the lab while perfecting their leather process, but Forgacs expects the regulatory approval process could keep Modern Meadow burgers off the dinner plate for another 10 years. A full-scale leather production facility, on the other hand, could be up and running in five years.

In the meantime, the company’s team, which previously founded medical bioprinter manufacturer Organovo, will work for the next two years on perfecting their processes and materials, and creating a small volume of products.

“We’ve got a very good sense of how to proceed, but we’re still in the development stage,” he says.

Full-scale tissue production an engineering problem, not a scientific leap of faith

As it stands now, there are five steps Modern Meadow will use to culture tissues for leather and food.

Step 1-Source cells by taking punch biopsies of donor animals, which could be livestock that would otherwise by used for food and leather or exotic animals typically killed for their skin. Isolate the extracted cells and possibly make beneficial genetic modifications for leather. Forgacs says cells destined to be used as meat would not be modified.

Step 2- Proliferate the millions of extracted cells into billions and billions in a bioreactor or other growth apparatus. Centrifuge the products to eliminate the growth medium from the cells and then lump cells together to create aggregated spheres of cells.

Step 3- Put the cell aggregates together in layers and allow them to fuse together in a process called bioassembly. Modern Meadow is considering a number of techniques for this, including 3-D bioprinting.

Step 4- Put the newly fused cells in a bioreactor and give them time to mature. “We create the embryonic precursor and in the bioreactor apply physical cues to let nature take over,” Forgacs says. “This stimulates collagen production in the case of the cells that will become leather and muscle growth in what will become meat.”

Step 5- After several weeks, no more food is provided to the cells. Skin tissue turns to hide. Muscle and fat tissue is harvested for food. Because the hides do not have hair or tough outer skin on them, they go through an abbreviated tanning process that decreases the amount of toxic chemicals needed.

“Nothing we’re doing requires a scientific leap of faith,” Forgacs says. “There’s no science we’re using that we’re not confident with. This isn’t about scientific risks, it’s about engineering challenges.”

An alternative for the world’s insatiable demand for meat?

The idea of culturing flesh for meat and other animal products is more than a gee-whiz moment for technology geeks—whoever can bring the food technology to market will take a major step toward alleviating one of the key factors fueling humanity’s large looming crises. Forgacs and others who are pursuing engineered meat are hopeful that it will be a viable alternative protein in the world’s food supply within a couple of decades.

Here’s a number to think about for a moment: 122 billion lbs. That’s how much beef and veal the world consumed in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it is only a fraction of the 1.5 billion cattle alive on the planet. Meanwhile, the world consumed another 223 billion lbs. of pork the same year. The Economist says overall global demand for meat will double by 2050.

All those animals put a huge burden on the environment, consume vast amounts of resources and energy, expose people and other animals to infectious diseases and cause many distress over livestock welfare.

Looking at the environmental impacts of meat production, researchers from the universities of Oxford and Amsterdam found that cultured meat expends 7-45 percent less energy than conventional farming methods; produces 78-96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions; uses 99 percent less land; and requires 82-96 percent less water, depending on the meat types they compared. “Despite high uncertainty, it is concluded that the overall environmental impacts of cultured meat production are substantially lower than those of conventionally produced meat,” the authors said in their July 2011 Environmental Science&Technology journal paper.

Forgacs says, “We got into this for several reasons—because it’s possible, it’s new, it’s exciting and it’s important. We love technological innovation and its ability to enable social benefit.”

Helping the world is a noble goal, but there are also very large economic incentives to their work. Analysts at business information provider MarketLine report that the international meat, fish and poultry market generated revenues of $527.6 billion in 2010, which represented a compound annual growth rate of 3.8 percent for 2006-2010.

Modern Meadow’s meat and leather would be competing for a share of a combined $2.5 trillion market, Forgacs says.

“If we can come up with a very good product that can be technically superior in some ways and at the same time environmentally more conscious and animal friendly, then that could mean a significant portion of the global market,” he says, noting that any cultured meat that makes it to market is unlikely to take a significant share for some time to come. “This isn’t something to make anybody in the animal farming industry quake in their boots for the next decade.”

Modern Meadow isn’t the only group looking for a solution to all the problems associated with raising livestock.

For the last several years, Dr. Mark Post, the head of the physiology department at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, has been working to grow meat in his laboratory. He’s using a different approach—breeding bovine adult stem cells, turning them into muscle cells and then growing them in a medium containing fetal calf serum. Post and his team are also growing fat using a similar process. They will mix the two together to create a hamburger patty Post expects to serve in October. The burger is projected to cost more than $350,000.

“Mark is growing muscle fibers one by one, putting them all together and grinding them up,” Forgacs says. “We’re looking to do things in a much more efficient, high-throughput way. We need to perfect this technology at a reasonable cost and bring prices down by orders of magnitude to make this a widely consumed product.”

Reprinted from Txchnologist, September 18, 2012
Front page image: Shutterstock