McMaster University researchers use animal cells to cultivate meat in a lab

Researchers at McMaster University have developed a new form of cultivated meat using a method they say promises more natural flavour and texture than other alternatives to traditional meat from animals.

Using a technique adapted from a method used to grow tissue for human transplants, researchers Ravi Selvaganapathy and Alireza Shahin-Shamsabadi have been able to cultivate meat by stacking thin sheets of cultivated muscle and fat cells grown together in a lab setting.

“We have used mouse cells in order to do this, and currently we’re working with rabbit cells,” Selvaganapathy, a professor of biomedical engineering, told CBC News.

“The technique to actually skilfully assemble these types of cells … should be applicable to chicken and beef and other types of human-consuming meat.”

The sheets of living cells, each about the thickness of a sheet of printer paper, are first grown in culture and then concentrated on growth plates before being peeled off and stacked or folded together. 

The sheets naturally bond to one another before the cells die.

Ravi Selvaganapathy says, ‘The technique to actually skillfully assemble these types of cells … should be applicable to chicken and beef and other types of human-consuming meat.’ (Submitted by Ravi Selvaganapathy)

The researchers did not eat the mouse meat, but they later made and cooked a sample of meat they created from rabbit cells.

“We are using regular animal cells to grow these kinds of meat,” Selvaganapathy said.

While the technology is very new, Selvaganapathy said it was developed “with an eye on scalability.”

Selvaganapathy said in the last five or six years, various groups and companies around the world have been investigating this technology. 

“We are the first group in the world to actually develop a tissue-like structure, which is composed of both fat and muscle, because the fat is the one that gives the taste in meat,” Selvaganapathy said.

“Previous groups have not been able to incorporate fat in the growth itself, it has only been muscle and we have been able to incorporate both fat and muscle.

“We are certainly the first group in Canada to grow cultured meat,” Selvaganapathy added.

Alireza Shahin-Shamsabadi at work in a lab at McMaster University. (Submitted by Alireza Shahin-Shamsabadi )

The way of the future?

The researchers were inspired by the meat-supply crisis in which worldwide demand is growing while current meat consumption is straining land and water resources and generating troubling levels of greenhouse gases.

Selvaganapathy said meat consumption is increasing as more and more countries become richer.

According to Selvaganapathy, the increase in meat consumption means more of the land that is devoted to agriculture is being used to grow crops to be fed to animals, which are subsequently consumed as meat.

“An example of that would be what is happening in Brazil [where] the Amazon forest is being destroyed to grow soybeans and that soybean is being exported to China to feed [pigs],” Selvaganapathy said.

“A large fraction of the land resources and water resources in the world are now being dedicated to actually grow crops, not to feed humans but to feed animals so that they can consume the meat.

“This technology will allow us to reduce the impact on land and water resources so that it could grow crops for human consumption, like rice and wheat for instance, and reduce the destruction of forests and therefore mitigating effects on climate,” Selvaganapathy said.

Alireza Shahin-Shamsabadi and his co-researcher have formed a start-up company — CaroMeats — to begin commercializing the technology. (Submitted by Alireza Shahin-Shamsabadi)

The McMaster researchers say producing viable meat without raising and harvesting animals would be far more sustainable, more sanitary and far less wasteful.

They have formed a start-up company — CaroMeats — to begin commercializing the technology.

“We started this project as an application for one of the biofabrication techniques that I had developed in my PhD studies for tissue engineering purposes,” Shahin-Shamsabadi told CBC News.

“But even then, the business potentials of the idea were obvious to us. Once the core technology was developed, we sought its commercialization potential by participating in Lab2Market program, which was a great opportunity for me to learn about the entrepreneurial world and at the same time investigate our product’s market.”

Selvaganapathy and Shahin-Shamsabadi are currently a part of the Velocity Incubator and are “hoping to have the first version of the product ready in near future.”

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