iPS cells: The missing ingredient in cultivated meat

Animal induced pluripotent stem cells are a key ingredient to making protein products that address sensory characteristics as well as environmental and animal welfare concerns. Richard Freeman from Roslin Technologies explains

The production of cultivated meat gives many people around the world a choice in the type of protein they can consume – for ethical, medical, or religious reasons, they may want to avoid certain types of animal protein. In the UK, agtech company Roslin Technologies has embraced the challenge of producing cell-based meat that tick all the boxes on the sensory and sustainability front.

Dr Richard Freeman, commercial manager at Roslin, says the company sees cultivated meat as a key part of the jigsaw that is meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Since its inception in 2016, Roslin has been developing novel approaches to creating more worldwide protein sources and responsible consumption through multiple methods.

“It’s not often in a business context that you get to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing the planet at any one time but with cultivated meat, we can,” says Freeman. “At Roslin, we believe that our advanced initiatives in this sector could be the make-or-break deal for many of the companies trying to gain a foothold in this nascent industry.”

Roslin Technologies is a joint venture between the University of Edinburgh and industry. It’s headquartered in Roslin, just outside Edinburgh, in the Midlothian Science Zone – the UK version of the deep-tech hub Silicon Valley in the US.

Freeman reveals the company has a unique relationship with the Roslin Institute – the home of the world’s first mammal clone – Dolly the sheep. “This partnership gives us access to the scientific breakthroughs made at this great institution,” he says.

Roslin is focused on the cultivated meat sector. As a business-to-business venture, the company is on a mission to make cultivated meat products commercially viable.

“The ultimate goal is to commoditise processes and products to ensure that the industry can sell cultivated meat products that consumers can afford, and producers can make a reasonable margin to ensure that their operations are profitable,” says Freeman.

Richard Freeman, commercial manager, Roslin Technologies

The Roslin Tech approach

Roslin has developed technologies in the animal stem cell space. Its flagship offering is animal induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell lines and specific methodologies to develop them. It has filed for a patent for this.

The company has already fully validated its iPS cell lines for porcine species, with the proven ability to differentiate them into key cell types for cultivated meat products, such as muscle and fat.

Freeman says the goal moving forward is to develop low-cost culture scale-up solutions for current lines and extend its range of iPS-like cell lines for key livestock and aquatic species.

Focus on cost-efficiency

In the cultivated meat sector, the cost of production is the main stumbling block to progress. Investors have recognised this challenge. Venture capital has come to this space, and investment has gone up from $75 million in 2019 to $220 million in Q1 2021 alone.

Freeman explains that Roslin does not see cells alone as a determinant of progress in the industry, with much of the cost at the moment being in the media used to grow the meat. He argues the resilience of Roslin’s iPS cell lines ensure that there is a lower number of failed production runs, which therefore reduce cost as media is not wasted.

“The sector urgently needs robust cell lines for their products to make the cultivated meat industry financially viable,” says Freeman. He argues the reliability of Roslin’s iPS cells compared to other cell lines gives it an edge on reducing costs for clients, particularly in terms of their scalability and durability. “Our cell lines have the capacity to self-renew, meaning they are infinitely capable of replication without the senescence that’s observed with other cultured progenitor cell types such as mesenchymal cells,” explains Freeman.

Immortality – a key sector requirement

Freeman argues that Roslin’s cell lines retain pluripotency, including the capability of terminal differentiation into muscle and fat cells for the production of cultivated meat prototypes, enabling the taste to closely mimic that of traditional meat.

Scientists at Roslin Technologies analyse cell samples

He explains: “We have fully validated that our porcine iPS cells fulfil key sectoral requirements, including immortality, nonintegrated reprogramming, the ability to grow in animal product-free media/feeder-free culture, and the capacity to differentiate into muscle and fat cells.”

Freeman claims the outputs are high-quality cell lines, which, when combined with appropriate media culture solutions, will enable partner companies to generate cultivated meat in a cost-effective way, thus addressing the need for an alternative method of sustainable protein production.

Animal welfare

Roslin conducted a market research study, utilising intelligence from its network in cellular agriculture, to identify and evaluate significant competitors in the sector. It found a couple of companies that indirectly operate in similar areas with cell lines based on these mesenchymal stem cells. For Freeman, this is where Roslin stand out from competitors.

“Unlike our iPS cells, mesenchymal cell lines are maintained by repeated biopsy from donor animals, which negates the ongoing animal-free and livestock welfare benefits that should come from cultivated meat,” says Freeman. “In addition, our scientists have created a growth medium that’s animal extract-free, removing foetal bovine serum, which is a key component in traditional media.”

Cell-based meat production: the basics. Image for illustration purposes only

Freeman mentions other disadvantages to using mesenchymal cells, including the fact that they have limited capacity to differentiate into other cell types when compared to iPS cells. “These mesenchymal cells senesce over time in culture, impacting the quality of the end product as well as continually requiring further animals for biopsy,” he explains.

In contrast, Roslin’s validated iPS cells are immortalised. “Roslin’s porcine cell lines have already demonstrated that they are capable of continuous growth for over 55 passages for more than two years,” says Freeman. “And our cell lines are capable of differentiation into both key target cell types (mature myocytes and adipocytes) for cultivated meat products.”

Freeman argues that no other company anywhere on the planet has made the progress that Roslin has, nor can offer the cultivated meat industry such reliability and consistency in cell line development.

Partnerships – a key to success

For Freeman, success in the cultivated meat space is reliant on all players in the industry to work together to ensure cultivated meat is a global project that goes to fruition.

“We can work with the vast majority of cultivated meat companies to help them get their consumer products efficiently and safely over the line,” says Freeman. He notes, however, that for the industry and public confidence, the nascent cultivated meat industry requires accepted standards across the sector in the future.

Roslin Technologies already works closely with a range of companies in the sector and is looking to add several more this year. The company is also engaged in an ongoing capital raising programme focused on investing in the research and development of its current and future cell lines and in their delivery to market.