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Stem cell technology pioneer Myocopia helps bring cultivated meat to consumers

June 3, 2024

What if we could grow meat by cultivating animal cells, thus eliminating the need to slaughter cows? This would help reduce the environmental damage caused by livestock farming and make meat consumption more ethical. Global food security too would improve if access to food did not depend on the availability of land.

Although meat can already be cultivated, there is a big problem: current technologies do not enable production in sufficient quantities and cheaply enough to make cultivated meat available to consumers.

“All companies run into problems at roughly the same point of scaling up production,” said Professor Pekka Katajisto of the University of Helsinki’s Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE).

Katajisto and his colleagues hope to solve the problem with the new technology they are developing in the Myocopia project. Currently, the cultivation of meat in bioreactors relies heavily on expensive growth factors used to make the cells grow and differentiate. The Myocopia team takes another approach and controls the same processes by affecting cellular metabolism.

“I believe our innovation is going to be a game changer in the emerging industry as a whole,” Katajisto stated.

The new technology originated from Katajisto’s laboratory, which is connected to the Centre of Excellence in Stem Cell Metabolism (MetaStem). Researchers there have studied how cellular metabolism regulates the division and differentiation of stem cells. Their basic research on the metabolism of muscle stem cells led to an innovation that can keep the cells expanding longer than with current methods. This enables the precise control of cells in meat-producing bioreactors.

“The cells can be kept multiplying in a financially viable way until the reactor is full. The cells are then guided to form meat – again using their own metabolism,” said Katajisto.

The researchers first tested their idea with HiLIFE Proof of Concept funding. After achieving promising results, in late 2023 the team received two-year Research to Business funding from Business Finland to prepare for commercialization.

“We want to increase our understanding of the market and finetune our technology,” said University Researcher Swetha Gopalakrishnan, who made the original observation leading to the innovation and is the scientific lead of the Myocopia project.

The cultivated meat market is just taking shape. So far, only a few products have been available to consumers – for example, chicken nuggets in Singapore. However, McKinsey predicts that, if all goes well, the market could reach US$25 billion by 2030 and account for as much as 0.5% of the global meat supply by 2030.

Olga Balakina, the commercialization specialist for the Myocopia project, said about 150 companies are operating in the field. The team is now surveying which of them could be potential partners.

“Our top priority is to identify the companies with which we can launch a pilot,” Balakina said.

Technology companies are especially interesting. With their help, the Myocopia team can tailor the innovation to meet the needs of the cultivated meat market. During the Research to Business project, the technology will be validated in commercially interesting species, such as beef, pork and poultry.

The patenting of the technology has begun, and discussions with venture capitalists will take place in 2025. The Myocopia team is hoping to find investors interested in innovative food production methods and alternative protein sources.

“After two years, we can strive to establish a spinout,” Balakina said.

Myocopia itself is not aiming to become a meat-producing company but a tech enabler for the industry. In practice, the final product could be, for example, a ‘cocktail’ stimulating cell growth. It could be effectively used in existing bioreactors, which would help the 150 companies active in the industry to bring cultivated meat products to consumers across the world.

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