“Cultured meat is a capital-intensive field with high cost factors including cell culture infrastructure, growth media and bioreactors. So, the key question is, can cultured meat be produced at a price point, customers are willing to pay?” asks Storch.
He identifies several challenges labs must overcome to bring the cost and quality of cell-cultured meat in line with customer expectations, while being able to deliver at the scale the market demands:
1. The development of new tools: “Developing the right toolbox for cell culture, from methods for epi-genetic interventions, to achieving the right media composition with effective growth factors, is a key challenge. There is a huge potential in perfecting these methods.”
2. Reproducibility: “A fundamental problem in biological research is that even slight changes in process mean that the results are no longer predictable or comparable. So there needs to be a standardisation of workflows to increase quality and reproducibility.”
3. Growing cells at scale: “Traditional bioreactor designs are not made for the type of cell culture that cultured meat companies focus on. So, innovation is needed to economically grow the amounts of cells in the composition required for lab-grown meat.”
4. Co-cultured meats: “One of the key challenges in cultured meat is re-creating the texture and taste of real meat. To achieve this, lab-grown meats strive to combine different cell types. For example, including fatty tissues is important for taste and mouthfeel. This means that labs need to develop novel co-culture systems where there is more than one cell type grown in the process.”
5. Safeguarding against contamination: “The last thing you want in your cell culture is a contamination that means you have to sacrifice your research result or product.”
Learn more about the opportunities and challenges of the cell culture industry today.
How is the industry tackling these challenges?
“With recent investor enthusiasm, a lot of young companies have sprung up in the last 5-10 years,” says Storch. “For example, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods lead in plant-based meat alternatives, while Upside Foods and SuperMeat are working on lab-grown meat products.
“As a result, there is a whole ecosystem growing around the cultured meat industry,” he continues. “Smaller companies are popping up focussing on key building blocks to support this ecosystem. Companies such as Multus Media specialise in creating animal-free media that allows cells to grow happily at lower cost, for example.”
Automation is crucial for cultured meat labs to reduce the amount of manual handling involved in the processes, says Storch.
“Cell culture work is typically a very labour-intense process,” he explains. “This means that staff have to spend a lot of time physically attending to the processes. One burden shared in the cell culture community is the requirement to attend cells at inconvenient times, like weekends, conducting the repetitive processes that support the growth or differentiation of their cultured cells. Here, automation can play an important role in reducing the manual, repetitive workload.”