Food Revolution 5.0: Digital Printing Meat
By Professor Kenneth Lee 18 February, 2019
Get the latest on clean meat technology in Hong Kong from CUHK's Prof. Lee
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When we talk about food tech or animal cloning, people often think of Dolly from the UK, US companies like Impossible Foods or even China. What most of us don’t know is that Hong Kong is also at the forefront of the upcoming Food Revolution 5.0. Professor Kenneth Lee from the School of Biomedical Sciences, CUHK, is one of the leading lights in this space and we attended his talk on “Clean Food from Stem Cells”, which blew our minds because he explained how we could grow meat without animals in the future.
Check out an excerpt of what we chatted about afterwards, from the process to when we will be able to taste bio-printed foie gras, and the possibility of commercialisation.
CWR: Firstly, thank you for the enlightening talk! Could you start us off by explaining how meat can be printed? What do stem cells have to do with it?
Prof. Kenneth Lee (KL): Stem cells have special properties that make them very useful and thus valuable as they have (1) the ability to be grown in large numbers and (2) the cells can be induced to become skeletal muscles (meat), bone, cartilage, nerve etc.
3D bio-printing stacks up stem cells using edible bio-ink as a supporting medium
However, stem cells (in fact all cells) are invisible to the naked eye so how could we consume them if we cannot see them? The introduction of 3D bio-printing allows cells to be collectively stacked up using edible bio-ink as a supporting medium.
Take the example of producing “clean” (not involving killing of animals) beef. We will first take some skin cells from a cow and then transform these cells into pluripotent cow stem cells using molecular biology techniques. These stem cells can then be expanded in large numbers, and transformed into cow skeletal muscle cells by using various chemical inducers. After that, these cells can be loaded into edible bio-inks (such as seaweed extracts) of a 3D bio-printer to fabricate beef chunks.
CWR: This really is a cutting edge field… how did you first get involved? What is driving you towards developing?
KL: My initial interest was to find ways of producing human heart and liver tissues for therapeutic use in clinical setting. I could bio-fabricate these two tissues but then realised it was extremely difficult as these tissues have to function optimally before they could be used on patients. Switching this technology to producing clean meat is significantly less demanding and eliminates the possibility of killing patients if the bio-fabricated tissues fail to function properly. This was the turning point of my involvement in clean meat production as I was also being approached by a clean meat startup company for collaboration.
CWR: In your talk you demonstrated the bio-printing of foie gras – can you tell us why foie gras in particular? Will it taste the same?
KL: Several international companies are now producing “clean” beef and pork although it is very expensive and financially not viable. The major problem is that the culture mediums needed to propagate stem cells are very expensive and therefore a cheaper alternative needs to be formulated.
Being a “late” comer in this space, I have selected foie gras because fatty goose liver is sold at a premium price where a small volume of the liver can command a top price. Most of all, it prevents cruelty to animals and in this incidence force feeding geese so that they develop fatty (diseased) liver.
I am still at the early stage of the process. After developing the goose stem cells, I will have to raise funding before I could start producing foie gras. I hope it will taste the same but a healthy version because saturated fats will be substituted with omega 3 enriched fats.
CWR: We never knew Hong Kong was so advanced in this area – so what are your next steps? What will you be aiming to bio-print next?
KL: Hong Kong has 4 universities ranked in the top 100 in the world so we have considerable scientific expertise. The problem is that our professors are stuck in their ivory towers and do not reach out to the community and inspire interest in science in our younger generation.
I would like to bio-print escargots (without the shell) as my next French-themed clean meat.
CWR: More generally, how do you see the future of bio-printing meat? Can it be commercialised soon?
KL: I see a good future in clean meat. It reduces the dependence on creating more farmland, overuse of antibiotics and water, and waste (methane, spoilage) that contaminates our environment. It also helps stop disease transmission to humans (e.g. mad cow disease, SARS etc.) and increases food security.
“I see a good future in clean meat….
…The speed of clean meat development & commercialisation in Hong Kong depends on visionary investors…”
Plus, it can create good job opportunities in land-hungry Hong Kong. Wouldn’t it be great if bio-farmer jobs could be created? The speed of clean meat development and commercialisation in Hong Kong really depends on visionary investors who not only care about potentially big profits but also our environment.
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