A microscopic ingredient could reduce the price of lab-grown meat

Muscle growth molecules speed up production and increase yields

The race is on to get lab-grown meat on your plate.

Scientists already know how to grow stem cells in beef, chicken or pork as a sustainable alternative to raising cattle. The challenge now is to develop this process for large-scale production and achieve “price parity” – so that a lab-grown burger costs the same as a burger from a cow.

ProFuse, a startup based in Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel, claims it can cut production times by a third, increase yields by two and a half times, and dramatically reduce costs, all by adding a microscopic catalyst to the process.

Lab-grown meat. Deposit photos

It all started with a chance discovery during experiments on mice. Dr. Tamar Eigler-Hirsh, co-founder and CTO, was doing her postdoctoral studies at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, on how they regenerate muscle tissue.

She had a “lightbulb moment” in her quest to find out why some muscles regenerate (skeletal muscle after a gym session) and others don’t (cardiac muscle after a heart attack).

She then spent the next six years researching and developing the muscle growth process she had identified, until she was able to replicate it in lab-grown meat.

Up to 90% of the meat we eat is muscle. The key to growing meat in the lab is fusing cells together so they form long muscle fibers. It is a process that can occur spontaneously in the laboratory, under the right conditions. But it’s very slow and it produces small amounts of meat.

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Cells growing after 24 hours (left) without ProFuse molecules, and (right), with them, forming strands of muscle fibers. Courtesy

ProFuse has developed “small molecules” that meat growers can add to the mix to act as a catalyst, speeding up the process and increasing yields.

Cultured meat is an evolving industry. It’s not yet available in our supermarkets and restaurants, but it’s not far away. Singapore is so far the only country to have granted it regulatory approval. In December 2021, he said American company Eat Just Inc. may sell its GOOD Meat brand of chicken nuggets. Other countries will inevitably follow and the potential market is large ($140 billion by 2030 and $630 billion by 2040, according to estimates).

The world’s first cultured meat burger made headlines in 2013, with a price tag of $330,000. Professor Mark Post, who created it in his lab at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, said six years later that production costs had already dropped to around $9.

Lowering the price is critical and inevitable. “Our mission statement is to enable the vision of cultured meat by reducing its cost and improving its quality,” says Guy Nevo Michrowski, CEO of ProFuse. “The goal is to achieve price parity with farmed livestock.”

Because he can build high-quality muscle faster, the process costs less, he says, and it doesn’t involve any genetic modification or antibiotics.

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A researcher at the ProFuse lab in Kiryat Shmona, Israel. Courtesy

Rather than producing finished products, ProFuse plans to supply its biotechnology-based media supplements to cultured meat companies to speed up their processes.

“If we don’t revolutionize the way we produce meat, we won’t have enough meat by 2050 because demand will double,” Michrowski told NoCamels.

“And there’s no way to expand the caveman methods that we use today to grow meat. That’s why a new technological space is developing called cultured meat, which is basically developing an industrial process to grow meat in a factory with no obvious animal involvement, just taking a cell and growing it into a steak.

“For this process to succeed, it must be at par with farm-sourced meat, and it must be tasty and nutritious, or no one will buy it. For that to happen, there is a big challenge of how to scale it.

ProFuse helps scale things up by accelerating the lab growth process. “To build muscle, you start with stem cells and grow them,” says Michrowski.

“You have to give them a specific signal that tells the cells to change their identity and become muscle. Essentially, we have found a way to enhance this signal by using molecules that we add to cells.

After 24 hours, the cells begin to grow muscle fibers. “The simple process takes about 40 days and would yield 1 kg of meat. With us, it takes 27 days and gives 2.5 kg of meat.

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The challenge is to speed up production time and increase yields of cultured meat. Deposit photos

“And the cost savings are much more important than just saving time, because that’s what you actually get out of that time too.”

The “small molecules” it produces are so small that all customers currently need less than a pinch of salt, but when they move to full industrial production, they will use more.

Michrowski says, “The challenges are cost reduction, scaling, and quality of the end product. You have to solve a lot of problems for all these challenges to be completed.

“We are not a one-size-fits-all solution to all challenges – cost reduction and scale and end product quality – we are part of an array of innovative and brilliant breakthroughs across the industry.

“However, we deal with muscle production, which generates 50% of the cost of mass production.”

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