From Saving Endangered Rhinos to Enabling Lab-Grown Meat

Researchers at the University of Oslo are building a biobank of animal cells, the first of its kind, to help researchers develop lab-grown meat and contribute to the conservation of endangered species.

Gareth Sullivan became familiar with stem cell technology while working in the group of Ian Wilmut, the scientist behind cloning Dolly the sheep. Using a technology to create stem cells out of tissue samples, he decided to apply his knowledge to the conservation of endangered species. He has created stem cells from northern white rhinoceros, a species of which only two females are left in the planet. They will serve as a backup for a future where scientists are able to use these stem cells to create eggs and sperm in order to bring back this soon to be extinct species.

“After that project, I was approached by a few companies interested in cultured meat. That led me toward the idea of developing a repository of farming animals,” Sullivan told me. This idea has won his research group at the University of Oslo a €220,000 ($250,000) grant to build a bank of animal stem cells that could be groundbreaking in many different ways.

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Called ‘The Frozen Farmyard’, the project aims to build the first centralized biobank to store animal cell lines of interest to researchers and companies working in the development of cultured meat — that is, grown out of animal cells without the actual animal. The whole field is in its early stages and currently most of the development work focuses on creating cell lines from scratch that are suitable for growing animal muscle and fat.

As Sullivan explained, not that many research groups around the world have the knowledge to create stem cell lines from animals other than primates. The biobank could potentially save researchers years of development.

Gareth Sullivan University of Oslo

Gareth Sullivan at his lab in the University of Oslo

Sullivan’s group will collaborate with farmers across Europe to collect biopsy samples from farm animals that the researchers will use to establish brand new stem cell lines. They are developing a system where the farmer will be sent a package with the material necessary to take a small biopsy from the animal and ship it to their lab. The biopsy could be easily obtained from the ear tagging of farm animals, which yields a small biopsy of a width of just a few millimeters that is usually thrown away.

From these samples, the researchers will develop induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs for short, which have the ability to duplicate indefinitely and would provide a never ending source of the starting material for researchers. With few exceptions, such as Higher Steaks in the UK and Meatable in the Netherlands, the majority of companies working on cultured meat use adult stem cells, which have a limited number of divisions. Meaning that they would need to regularly go back to take biopsies from the animals to keep up the production of meat.

“At the moment, the only downside is the cost. It’s very expensive to grow iPSCs,” said Sullivan. What’s driving up prices are growth factors — molecules that the stem cells need to grow and differentiate into adult cells, be it muscle, fat, bone or liver. His research group is looking into identifying small molecules that can be produced cheaply through chemical synthesis in order to replace the expensive growth factors, although this line of work is focused on human cells so far

With the funding from GFI, Sullivan plans to establish 18 brand new cell lines over the course of the following 18 months. In the future, he expects to get further funding to keep expanding the bank, which could also contribute to continuing his conservation work. “Some of the pig and cattle species are endangered. With this biobank we will have a backup for the future.”


Image credits to Shutterstock; Gunnar Lothe /University of Oslo

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