(In order to solve global challenges, we need to rethink sustainability.)
Daan and Krijn, my co-founders in Meatable, and I connected back in 2016. Daan was working for a small charity supporting research in cultured meat and got really interested in a technology we were developing in my lab at the University of Cambridge. The technology now forms the technological basis for Meatable and my human synthetic biology therapy company bit.bio.
Then I knew little about cultured meat. Within a 5 minute telephone Daan had me convinced that it can solve some of the most pressing problems of our planet: use of land, loss of biodiversity, the ethical issues of killing animals for food purposes, antibiotic resistance issues and other issues that are related to high density farming. I was sold. He connected me to Krijn, a strategy consultant at McKinsey working on supply chains who was looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity in this field; together we started Meatable.
Whilst at first glance bit.bio — whose mission is to ‘reprogram’ cells into any cell in the human body for use as cell therapies and research tools for drug discovery — and Meatable seem an unlikely match, when you look a little deeper it makes perfect sense. You can read more about opti-ox and why it underpins both companies in this recent piece in Forbes by John Cumbers, founder and CEO of SynBioBeta.
The answer as to why it makes sense lies in two places — technology and sustainability.
turning bugs, like e.coli, into factories that generate medicines, or even structural building blocks such as spider silk. To address the more complex problems in healthcare and food we needed to extend the repertoire of synbio to the manufacture of mammalian cells. However, these are notoriously difficult to control. Here is where opti-ox comes in: it provides precise control of gene activity in mammalian cells which solves the issue of the manufacturing bottleneck. And once you have that, there are so many ways it can be used to do good things in the world.
Let me talk about technology first.
Our technology taps into what you could call the software, or the ‘operating system’ of a cell.
Cell reprogramming relies on activation of genetic programs or gene regulatory networks that are controlled by transcription factors. Transcription factors are a class of proteins that activate or repress genes in a cell, they essentially determine which of the programs embedded in the DNA are active at any particular time.
Combinations of transcription factors encode the identity of a cell; literally every cell type seems to be defined by a particular combination of transcription factors. This insight goes back to Harold Weintraub who in 1987 identified the first cell program that defines a muscle, Shinya Yamanaka, who has provided us with the ability to turn human cells back into stem cells, and Marius Wernig, a pioneer in cell reprogramming, who together have inspired an ever growing field of cell reprogramming.
Our opti-ox technology makes it possible to activate transcription factors with a precision rarely seen in biology. The control of this approach is paramount to solving the scale up issue for any industrial use of cells. Which is how Meatable get the porcine and bovine fat and muscle they need in large enough quantities to make a sausage, or a steak.
Whilst it may seem counterintuitive at first that the same technology could one day cure cancer and help transform the food industry, when you understand the main problem it makes sense.
But another significant part I think has to do with sustainability.
Biology is able to assemble complex cellular structures from basic chemical elements. Tapping into this potential, opti-ox can provide an unlimited supply of mammalian cells. With the right instructions from opti-ox and the right chemical nutrients in place, cells literally grow on their own. Once you have this, you start to see all sorts of possibilities.
As Dr. Emily Leproust, CEO of synthetic biology company Twist, argues in her excellent TED Talk,
“modern sustainability is the integration of the environment, people and the economy. Each of them is needed to thrive. You cannot have one without the other. Therefore, the practice of sustainability recognizes that everything is connected and requires a different approach.”
The focus of bit.bio is to apply our synbio technology for the most important medical needs, including cancer and the consequences of poor health due to ageing. My involvement in Meatable extends this remit to some of the major health issues that our Earth is currently facing: climate change, the ethical challenge of animal slaughter, the industrial use of antibiotics, and, as we have come to painfully realise, the increased chances of high density animal farming to trigger a global pandemic.