Cultivated meat – real meat grown from cells in a fermentation-like process – successfully cleared its first hurdles regarding safety last year. Now, for the multitude of research groups and new companies operating in this emerging space, the real work is just beginning. Whether it’s beef, pork, fish, or fowl, animal cells must be securely sourced and characterized in robust cell banks for research, development, and eventual commercialization.
Due to the existing barriers in cost and quality of sourcing cells, cultivated meat companies have become secretive about their tissue sources and provenance. To create a more accessible and transparent environment for research and innovation in this space, dedicated cell banks for the cultivated meat industry must provide consistent, high-quality cells and detailed, relevant information on their provenance and behaviour.
This month, we have teamed up to share our insights into the challenges of getting started in the cultivated meat industry in a three-part series. In this article, we explore the barriers to sourcing high-quality cells for cultivated meat and discuss the key considerations that companies and academic groups should make when sourcing and isolating cells.
Relationships matter when sourcing cells
The first hurdle many organizations face in the cultivated meat sector is getting cells. Companies that supply cells to the biopharmaceutical industry for medical research are highly expensive, require licensing agreements or contracts for their use, and are often limited in terms of species or breeds. Without another source of cells, cultivated meat researchers must either risk the expense to obtain potentially poor-quality starting materials, or source cells themselves.
Extracellular and Multus independently source cells from local partners, a process heavily reliant on building good relationships with multiple stakeholders. Extracellular approached local farmers through the University of Bristol’s veterinary school, explaining their research and acquiring permission to take biopsies from animals earmarked for veterinary research. Similarly, Multus engaged with local abattoirs to acquire unusable byproducts as a source of cells.
These relationships are inherently difficult to forge. Farmers and abattoirs are not necessarily receptive or interested in cultivated meat research. Additionally, finding a partner that can reliably acquire the same tissue type is essential for ensuring the consistency and quality of cell isolates.
The delicate process of isolation
The first hurdle is sourcing cells for cultivated meat companies. The second? Physically isolating them.
Isolation is the process of separating and purifying cells, often a type of stem cell such as mesenchymal stem cells that have the potential to become muscle and fat tissue. With these isolated cells, researchers can conduct research into growing and differentiating them into cultivated meat products.
Unfortunately, the laboratory protocols for harvesting and isolating cells from tissue are typically developed with biomedical research in mind and fail to serve cultivated meat researchers.
New protocols must be adapted or designed for animal-specific tissues, which takes a significant amount of time. Then, the cells must be characterized for performance and behaviour in order to ensure consistency from experiment to experiment. The setup cost is often high in terms of both time and financial investment.
In any process, the quality of the starting material matters. Poor-quality cells isolated with sub-optimal processes can add significant time and cost burdens. Standardized cell banks with diverse species and tissue isolate with corresponding cell culture protocols would help significantly de-risk entry to cultivated meat research and development.
Consistency and quality from farm to flask
Ensuring quality and consistency is no easy task. Existing cell banks often lack key information on cell provenance and performance. While the characterization of cell and tissue cultures forms a large part of ensuring quality, predicting consistent behaviour is key to scaling cultivated meat processes. Gathering data from farm to flask is integral to supporting consistency.
Depending on the animal, factors like age, sex, breed, and tissue source can impact how the isolated cells grow and perform. Similarly, information on the growth rate of these cells in a standard media, the number of passages since isolation, and their analytical profile are often lacking from existing cultivated meat cell banks. Without this, researchers cannot know what to expect regarding performance.
Future cell banks providing standardized information and media will enable the cultivated meat research community to better innovate with high-quality starting materials.
Better cells are urgently needed
It's clear that action is needed to provide access to relevant cell sources for cultivated meat research. As enablers of the industry, we aim to support those companies and researchers that are developing more sustainable and ethical meat production methods, including the development of better cell lines, media formulations, and scalable production methods.
By working together, we can help to create a more sustainable and ethical future for meat production.
Click here to learn more about our work supporting the affordable scale up of cultivated meat.
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