By Shen Ming Lee, Digital Labs Associate at TFF and author of Hungry For Disruption: How Tech Innovations Will Nourish 10 Billion By 2050

The annual New Harvest Conference held at the MIT Media Lab on July 19-20 was frankly awe-inspiring. This annual gathering of leading scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, and the media explored the latest scientific developments, regulatory challenges and paths to commercialization for the cellular agriculture industry.

The conference was filled with an abundance of innovative ideas, collaboration opportunities, and exciting developments. Rather than getting one right answer, the conference was about asking thought-provoking questions, questioning existing assumptions, and getting multiple answers and perspectives. And more than anything, this conference was all about rallying a visionary, diverse community to establish a world where growing meat, dairy, eggs and leather is no longer a topic of science fiction.

Here are some highlights from the 2019 New Harvest Conference – one to remember!

Next Generation Scientists: New Harvest Research Fellows

The day started with three New Harvest research fellows presenting their research. It was entirely inspiring and refreshing to hear from three next generation researchers exploring the frontiers of cellular agriculture. While we’re seeing tons of private capital flowing into companies, these researchers brought us to the roots of what it means to expand the boundaries of cellular agriculture.

  • Santiago Campuzano, a New Harvest research fellow and MSc student at the University of Ottawa, presented his research on using decellularized plant scaffolding (composed of celery cellulose) to guide cell alignment and orientation. While cell alignment is one aspect of cell-culture, it sure is an important one and Santiago showed us how celery is a lot more complex than meets the eye!
  • Scott Allan, a New Harvest research fellow and PhD student at the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies at the University of Bath, spoke about bioprocess design for large-scale cultured meat production.
  • Natalie Rubio, a New Harvest research fellow and PhD student at Tufts University, gave us insight into how growing invertebrate cells (like insects) involves less technical challenges compared to growing vertebrates (e.g. cow, chicken, pigs). Her presentation on “Entomoculture” (a term Natalie came up with to refer to growing insects from cells!) was eye-opening and provocative, challenging us to consider how caterpillar steak might be a reality on our plates.

Scaling is King

The elephant in the room was clearly scaling cell-culture production. The world’s first cell-based burger patty created by Mark Post involved about 20,000 meat tissue cells that had to be grown and harvested individually. How do we bring cell-culture out of a petri-dish in a lab and into a large-scale bioreactor in a factory?

Scaling production will mean contending with 4 main technical challenges: cell culture media, scaffolding, cell lines, and bioprocess design. Below is a high-level overview of each core component, followed by key highlights from the New Harvest talks/panels.

1. Cell Culture Media

Cell culture media, colloquially known as “nutrient broth,” is the cocktail of nutrients needed to help cells grow and multiply.

The three main issues with current media:

  • It is expensive to produce since most media is produced at a small-scale for the biotech and pharmaceuticals industry.
  • The animal-derived serum called Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) often used in media to efficiently grow cells is highly controversial and unethical.
  • A lot of high-value media is currently needed to produce cell-based meat—it is estimated that about 3L of media is needed just to produce one burger patty! How do we minimize the amount of media used and maximize cell growth?
2. Scaffolding

Growing cells in vitro involves scaffolding in order to guide cells and give them structure to grow in a desired way. How do we find appropriate scaffolds to guide different cell lines/ types (e.g. adipose/fat cells, muscle, connective tissue cells)?

3. Cell Lines

Using immortalized cell lines from living organisms has its own fair share of challenges and concerns. Are immortalized cells potentially cancerous? How do we appropriately isolate different cell lines? How do we cheaply remove cells from production?

4. Bioprocess Design

The key word involved in the bioprocess design is bioreactors—large fermentation tanks that will facilitate and contain growing cells. The big topics raised at New Harvest was on how to automate and optimize the bioprocess using different systems and techniques. Questions raised included: How do we maximize the doubling of cells for a bioreactor size? What type of bioreactor should be used in cell-cultured production? How does cost per cell-doubling vary with bioreactor-scale up?

  • Nick Beaumont, Founder of Heuros (an Australian biotech startup developing technologies to produce cell-based meat without serum, genetic modification, hormones, or antibiotics), spoke about how Heuros is using existing cell lines and slaughter serum-free media to produce animal tissue. They’ve managed to bring the cost of their media down to $10/ L and hope to provide their serum-free media to cellular agriculture companies hoping to scale production. Are we on our way to saying goodbye to slaughter serum and hello to serum-free media?
  • Nina Buffi, CTO of OSPIN, discussed how important media recycling is in building a filtration system that only removes the waste products from cell-division and retains cells and “the good stuff.” She also raised our attention to different scaffolding structures like micro-carriers, hollow fibers, self support, and no support. The key here is that each type of physical support has its pros and cons and different cell lines will require different scaffolding structures. Nina ended by proposing a radical new model for the future of cellular agriculture—a cloud-based solution to automate production where one can send over a bioprocess blueprint and scan a QR code with a recipe to produce cell-based meat anywhere in the world. Will cellular agriculture become increasingly decentralized?
  • Will Patrick, CEO of Culture Biosciences, spoke about how Culture Biosciences’ automated, high throughput bioreactor service is allowing rapid and scalable manufacturing processes for the industry.
  • Nicholas Legendre, Director of Biological Research at New Age Meats, spoke about the important role that data science and machine learning will play in automating cultured meat production. He gave insight on commercial vs. self built bioreactors, making the shift from hypothesis-based science to question-driven science, and the need for the industry to adopt a multidisciplinary approach. According to Legendre, we need bioengineers, biologists, data scientists, designers, marketers to make cellular agriculture work! I couldn’t agree more.

This was part 1 of Shen’s New Harvest recap. Click here for part 2.