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 with Txchnologist, 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.”