Human tissue engineering used to ‘grow’ meat cells


Although it is funny to consider, the idea of growing protein cells in a lab is very serious. According to a study published in Nature Food, meat production accounts for 57% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“I jokingly say we’re going to grow a chicken nugget,” said Steve McIntosh_, professor and chair of Lehigh University’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

One of the many initiatives to find alternatives to eating and producing animals is the cultivated or cultured meat industry. This uses cells from animals to produce protein. (As in the real stuff, not Beyond- or Impossible-adjacent.)

“The problem right now with cultured meat is that they can’t make what they call ‘whole cut’ pieces that have the right texture, and aren’t super expensive,” states Kelly Schultz, an associate professor in chemical and biomolecular Engineering (ChBE).

McIntosh and Schultz are part of a Lehigh’s P.C. team. McIntosh and Schultz are part of a team from Lehigh’s P.C. This group also includes ChBE associate professors Angela Brown, and Mark Snyder.

Brown says that although all four of us were chemical engineers trained, our research areas are very different. It is interconnected even though it may not appear so on paper.

To solve what is fundamentally a two-fold problem, it may require a variety of skills and perspectives.

One, the larger the meat, the more difficult it is to provide enough oxygen and nutrients for the cells that are in the middle. They also die if they are starved. Schultz says, “I assume you’d probably get really sick from eating that”. Second, it is important to stimulate muscle cells to develop the correct organizational pattern. The pattern is what gives the food its texture and the satisfying taste.

Schultz is the principal researcher for the project. Her work is perhaps the most in line with the project’s purpose. Her laboratory studies the characterization of colloidal- and polymeric gel scaffolds suitable for human tissue engineering.

Synder and Schultz will collaborate to develop a scaffold that meat cells can grow on. The structure they’ll use is similar to one she uses for wound healing in humans. It’s not rigid enough right now.

She says, “When you incorporate cells into the scaffold, you have to give them the right physical environment,” she says. “You have to make the environment feel like muscle so the cells remain muscle cells, and make more of them.”

Snyder, whose research focuses on nanomaterials that can be used in energy and imaging applications, will synthesize and functionize nanoparticles to achieve the right stiffness.

Snyder says that the idea is to manipulate the properties of stem cells using chemical or mechanical cues to allow them to differentiate into meat cells. We also need to consider how the gel structure can be reconfigured and adapted to grow cells. The gel’s adaptability is another aspect. We have ideas on how to use the nano-composite gel in order to achieve the cellular structure which is growing in a more fibrous manner.

McIntosh will use his electrochemistry expertise to promote fibrous growth.

He adds, “My other joke is that I’m here to exercise the chicken nugget,” he says. “We’re going to create the workout regime for this thing by figuring out what is the bioelectrochemistry required to guide the formation of this muscle tissue.”

This is because muscles grow through constant flexing and recuperating, which is a function the nervous system (an electrical system) of the body. McIntosh refers to research that shows the effects of an electric field upon muscle cells.

He says, ““It sets up chemical gradients in the cells that drive the cells to form fibers.”

Without a steady supply, however, nothing can form. Brown is here to help.

Brown studies the lipid-protein interactions that are involved in bacterial disease. She will be developing liposomal delivery systems for this project.

She explains that cell membranes are made of lipids. “Lipids are what cell membranes are made out of,” she says, “and they’re nice because you can encapsulate things inside of them.”

She will create two of these molecules: One will deliver glucose and the other oxygen.

She says, “We’re going to tether these liposomes to the scaffold that Kelly and Mark are working on,” she says. “As the cells are growing on the scaffold, [the molecules] should be releasing these nutrients to the cells so they can continue to grow, rather than die.”

The ultimate goal of the team is to create a platform that can scale up for the production of whole cuts of meat. This platform could also be used for other protein products, which will eventually be sold in supermarkets. They know it’s far off. In the meantime, they have the potential to answer many fundamental questions in areas that are not related to their research.

McIntosh says, “When you put collaborative projects like this one together, you end up doing things that none of us could do on our own,” he says. “And it’s just so intellectually stimulating to work with people who think very differently, and have very different research approaches. We’re all going to push our knowledge in completely different directions. There’s nothing more motivating than that.”

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