The coronavirus pandemic exposed significant weaknesses in the country's food supply chain. Grocery store meat counters were bare. Transportation interruptions influenced supply. Finding beef, poultry, and pork at the store has been, in some places, as challenging as finding toilet paper.
In traditional agriculture models, it takes at least three months to raise chicken, six to nine months for pigs, and 18 months for cattle.
It wasn't a lack of supply -- millions of animals were in the pipeline.
"There's certainly enough food out there, but it can't get anywhere because of the way our system is set up," said Amy Rowat, an associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA. "Having a more self-contained, self-sufficient way to produce meat could make the supply chain more robust."
Cultured meat could be one way of making the meat supply chain more resilient despite disruptions due to pandemics such as COVID-19. But is the country ready to embrace lab-grown food?
According to a Good Food Institute study, GenZ is almost twice as likely to embrace meat alternatives for reasons related to social and environmental awareness, even prior to the pandemic. That's because this group wants food choices that reflect their values around food justice, equity, and animal welfare.
Largely, the interest in protein alternatives has been plant-based foods. However, factors directly related to COVID-19 may accelerate consumer interest in the scaling up of cell-grown products, according to Liz Specht, the associate director of science and technology at The Good Food Institute. The latter is a nonprofit organization that supports scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs working to develop food alternatives to conventional animal products.
While lab-grown food isn't ready yet to definitively crisis-proof the food supply chain, experts say it offers promise.
Matching Supply and Demand
Companies developing cell-grown meat claim it can take as few as two months to develop a cell into an edible product, according to Anthony Chow, CFA at Agronomics Limited, an investment company focused on meat alternatives. Tissue is taken from an animal and placed in a culture that contains nutrients and proteins the cells need to grow and expand. He cites a Good Food Institute report that claims a 2.5-millimeter sample can grow three and a half tons of meat in 40 days, allowing for exponential growth when needed.
In traditional agriculture models, it takes at least three months to raise chicken, six to nine months for pigs, and 18 months for cattle. To keep enough maturing animals in the pipeline, farms must plan the number of animals to raise months -- even years -- in advance. Lab-grown meat advocates say that because cultured meat supplies can be flexible, it theoretically allows for scaling up or down in significantly less time.
"Supply and demand has drastically changed in some way around the world and cultivated meat processing would be able to adapt much quicker than conventional farming," Chow said.
Lab-grown meat may provide an eventual solution, but not in the immediate future, said Paul Mozdziak, a professor of physiology at North Carolina State University who researches animal cell culture techniques, transgenic animal production, and muscle biology.
"The challenge is in culture media," he said. "It's going to take some innovation to get the cells to grow at quantities that are going to be similar to what you can get from an animal. These are questions that everybody in the space is working on."
Chow says some of the most advanced cultured meat companies, such as BlueNal, anticipate introducing products to the market midway through next year. However, he thinks COVID-19 has slowed the process. Once introduced, they will be at a premium price, most likely available at restaurants before they hit grocery store shelves.
"I think in five years' time it will be in a different place," he said. "I don't think that this will have relevance for this pandemic, but certainly beyond that."
"Plant-based meats may be perceived as 'alternatives' to meat, whereas lab-grown meat is producing the same meat, just in a much more efficient manner, without the environmental implications."
Of course, all the technological solutions in the world won't solve the problem unless people are open-minded about embracing them. At least for now, a lab-grown burger or bluefin tuna might still be too strange for many people, especially in the U.S.
For instance, a 2019 article published by "Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems" reflects results from a study of 3,030 consumers showing that 29 percent of U.S. customers, 59 percent of Chinese consumers, and 56 percent of Indian consumers were either 'very' or 'extremely likely' to try cultivated meat.
"Lab-grown meat is genuine meat, at the cellular level, and therefore will match conventional meat with regard to its nutritional content and overall sensory experience. It could be argued that plant-based meat will never be able to achieve this," says Laura Turner, who works with Chow at Agronomics Limited. "Plant-based meats may be perceived as 'alternatives' to meat, whereas lab-grown meat is producing the same meat, just in a much more efficient manner, without the environmental implications."
A Solution Beyond This Pandemic
The coronavirus has done more than raise awareness of the fragility of food supply chains. It has also been a wakeup call for consumers and policy makers that it is time to radically rethink our meat, Specht says. Those factors have elevated the profile of lab-grown meat.
"I think the economy is getting a little bit more steam and if I was an investor, I would be getting excited about it," adds Mozdziak.
Beyond crises, Mozdziak explains that as affluence continues to increase globally, meat consumption increases exponentially. Yet farm animals can only grow so quickly and traditional farming won't be able to keep up.
"Even Tyson is saying that by 2050, there's not going to be enough capacity in the animal meat space to meet demand," he notes. "If we don't look at some innovative technologies, how are we going to overcome that?"
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.