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Secrets and pies: the battle to get lab-grown meat on the menu | Stem cells

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Not a week goes by without Elliot Swartz receiving at least one request from researchers asking him where they can find cell lines (a cell culture developed from a single cell) for use in cellular agriculture – an essential tool for creating lab-grown meat. “One of the most important things that cell lines offer is that they enable researchers to just get started in this new field,” says Swartz, who works in New York as a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute (GFI) – a nonprofit focused on advancing cellular agriculture and bringing its products to our shelves and stomachs as quickly as possible. Helping researchers is a core part of his role. In the case of cell lines, however, there’s very little he can do.

Swartz’s response to the researchers is unfortunately always the same: at the moment, publicly available cell lines relevant for cellular agriculture don’t really exist. That doesn’t mean that they’re nowhere to be found. Upside Foods (previously Memphis Meats) has submitted several patents to protect cell lines it has developed, and companies such as Cell Farm Food Tech have built a business around selling cell lines for profit. Keeping discoveries behind closed doors is a pattern of behaviour found in private companies across the industry, which many believe is slowing down innovation.

Cellular agriculture is the use of animal cells or microbes to grow animal products, such as meat or milk, in bioreactors. The field gained prominence after Dutch scientist Mark Post unveiled the first cultured meat burger in 2013. Since then, cultured meats have been touted as a sustainable alternative to livestock farming, which is the leading cause of habitat destruction. Global demand for burgers and bacon is to increase over the coming decades, meaning more ecosystems will be bulldozed to accommodate the expanding market. This, in turn, will increase the risk of future pandemics, as biodiversity loss is linked to the emergence of new diseases. Moreover, efforts to cut carbon emissions will also fall short of Paris targets if we don’t reduce our meat consumption, according to a special report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2019.

Cellular agriculture gained prominence in 2013 when Prof Mark Post of Maastricht University, above, unveiled the first cultured meat burger.
Cellular agriculture gained prominence in 2013 when Prof Mark Post of Maastricht University, above, unveiled the first cultured meat burger. Photograph: Cultured Beef Website/EPA

There is some progress. In Singapore last year, Eat Just became the first cultured meat company to gain regulatory approval to sell its product. But many technological, social, and economic hurdles remain before our supermarkets are filled with a variety of cultured cutlets. To surpass these hurdles, organisations including the GFI are pushing for a more public exchange of data, tools and ideas. As it stands, most research in the field is done by private companies which seem keen to protect their intellectual property.

Swartz says the lack of publicly available cell lines “is a gatekeeper in getting people into the field, even though there’s a lot of interest,” adding that this isn’t really an issue in other industries. Scientists looking for stem cells for research or clinical purposes can go to the government-funded UK Stem Cell Bank, and across the Atlantic, the nonprofit American Type Culture Collection hosts a reserve of cell lines that are mainly open access. Although repositories like this do include animal cells, that doesn’t mean they’re suitable for generating meat.

What makes cell lines themselves so useful is that they are immortal and can multiply indefinitely, so they can be used as a standard model across the industry. “We’re not going to understand if our findings are true if different groups are using different cells with different features,” Swartz continues. “So cell lines are the first piece of the puzzle for getting cultivated meat to become an actual field of study.” The GFI is filling the cell-line-shaped hole in cellular agriculture by funding the creation of lines that will be openly accessible, and making a repository to store them in. Kerafast – a Boston-based bioresearch company – will maintain this repository. Researchers not involved with the GFI are welcome to deposit cell lines too, as are private companies; anyone looking to use the cells must pay a small fee to cover the costs of storing and maintaining them. So far, only one academic group has deposited a cell line. “The lines being worked on in academic groups are still in development, which is why we haven’t got that many yet,” Swartz says.


The reluctance of private companies to share their cell lines may in part be because of how they are financed – a GFI report found that of the $366m invested in cultured meat in 2020, only around $12m came from public sources. Controlling the vast majority of the capital in the industry means that the private sector can comfortably dictate the pace and direction of innovation, which the Breakthrough Institute’s food and agriculture analyst Saloni Shah sees as an issue. “With the government and public sector funding research you can set criteria and standards, and make sure the right kinds of technologies get funded so that the development of the sector accelerates and improves,” says Shah.

The complaint that governments need to start investing in more sustainable food options is echoed by Isha Datar, the executive director of New Harvest – another nonprofit focused on advancing cellular agriculture. She thinks one of the reasons the field lacks government funding is that it is a mix of tissue engineering, which is medically oriented, and food science. “Cellular agriculture is kind of homeless and so it falls in between the cracks of the existing pillars of funding and how we think about science being separated,” she says. Swartz also agrees that more public funding is needed, but he thinks it will only come after the technology has been scaled up. “‘Does this industry scale?’ is going to be the key to opening the floodgate for governments funding this technology,” he says. “Open source research is going to be really important for bringing new ideas on how to scale this technology or lower costs.”

Eat Just’s ‘no kill’ chicken
In December, Eat Just’s ‘no kill’ chicken became available at a Singapore restaurant. It is the first lab-grown meat granted regulatory approval. Photograph: Eat Just/AFP/Getty Images

Swartz also complains that secrecy is holding up the industry-wide adoption of other cheaper, more efficient materials. For example, all of the nutrients needed for animal cells to grow into chunks of meat are contained in the cell culture medium, but the industry standard foetal bovine serum is expensive, and must be extracted from the foetus of a slaughtered cow. Many startups claim to have developed alternatives, but they remain trade secrets. “Companies tend not to patent these things, because by patenting a cell culture medium you have to include everything that’s in there, which is open sourcing what the ingredients are,” says Swartz.

Even if the cell line problem were solved, there would still be technological hurdles holding the field back from large-scale commercialisation. Using computer modelling to address these hurdles and accelerate the intensification of cultured meat production is a central goal of the Cultivated Meat Modeling Consortium (CMMC).

Modelling is a useful tool that allows researchers to simulate experiments before entering a laboratory. This helps to save on time and resources. In order to run more complicated simulations, however, modellers first need data from simpler experiments that detail the fundamental biological processes behind cultured meat production – to understand the sum of the whole, we must first analyse the parts. “We’re experiencing quite some difficulty in getting the information we need to actually build models,” says Jaro Camphuijsen, a researcher associated with the CMMC. Private companies they work with have shown resistance to sharing data and running certain experiments. “We have been talking to a cultivated meat company quite a lot, and we often ask: ‘What happens if you do this experiment?’ The answer is usually: ‘We don’t know,’ and ‘We aren’t going to do that because the cells will die,’” Camphuijsen explains. But failed experiments, he says, can provide useful data points that often reveal more than successful tests. “Experiments that go wrong actually provide lots and lots of information if you want to find out how these tiny systems of cells are behaving.”

cellular meat
Companies say they can grow cellular meat in a lab but doubts remain about whether production can be scaled to create an affordable product. Photograph: Svetlana-Cherruty/Getty Images/iStockphoto

When asked to respond to accusations that industry secrets were slowing down innovation in the field, Uma Valeti, the CEO of Upside Foods, wrote in an email that the firm “kickstarted the cultured meat movement when we were founded in 2015. Without that, the industry wouldn’t be in the place it is today, where there are hundreds of companies, NGOs, academic groups and government institutions focusing on cultured meat, across every continent but Antartica.” She adds that Upside is “actively supportive of more open access research on cultured meat,” and it has “actively supported the development of public research institutions like the Cultured Meat Consortium”.

Responding to the same accusations, Robert E Jones, head of public affairs at Mosa Meat, wrote: “Few companies have done more than Mosa Meat to contribute to the open advancement of cellular agriculture.” He adds that Mosa “hoped the 2013 burger would trigger a moonshot level of public investment in research,” and that “there is something to be said for an innovation ecosystem that includes both private capital and public investments for a challenge as big as reforming the food system.”

The idea that governments need to start investing in more sustainable food options is echoed by Datar. She has concerns about a field that lacks an academic basis and publicly accessible information. “It means cellular agriculture is going to have to be more transparent than other industries,” says Datar. “I think we need a lot more data sharing and a lot more transparency if we are to create a better food system.” Will private companies heed this call for more transparency and build on their claims that they are supportive of more open access research, or will they follow the approach in other sectors where financial gain has been prioritised over societal benefits? Campaigners hope the answer is one that puts the planet before profit margins.

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Exclusive or not, this is one Clubhouse I was happy to leave | John Naughton

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In March 2020, a new app suddenly arrived on the block. It was called Clubhouse and described as a “social audio” app that enabled its users to have real-time conversations in virtual “rooms” that could accommodate groups large and small. For a time in that disrupted, locked-down spring, Clubhouse was what Michael Lewis used to call the “New New Thing”. “The moment we saw it,” burbled Andrew Chen of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, “we were deeply excited. We believe Clubhouse will be a meaningful addition to the world, one that increases empathy and provides new ways for people to talk to each other (at a time when we need it more than ever).”

The app could not have come at a better time for social media, he continued. “It reinvents the category in all the right ways, from the content consumption experience to the way people engage each other, while giving power to its creators.” His firm put $12m of its (investors’) money behind Chen’s fantasies and followed up a year later with an investment that put a valuation of $1bn on Clubhouse, which would have made it one of the “unicorns” so prized by the Silicon Valley crowd.

This endorsement by an ostensibly serious venture capital firm undoubtedly helped to boost the hype about Clubhouse, but the main drivers – snobbery and elitism – had little to do with funding. In the beginning, for example, the app was only available for the iPhone (the BMW of the smartphone market) and membership was by invitation only. If you were lucky enough to be invited, then you could pass on an invitation to one friend. A generous colleague of mine extended hers to me and I went about signing up, until I discovered that the app unconditionally demanded access to all the contacts on my phone, whereupon I deleted it, as did my embarrassed colleague some time later.

Other invitees were more accommodating, though, and for a time Clubhouse grew like crazy. It had 600,000 registered users by December 2020 and 8.1m downloads by February 2021. In April 2021, Twitter approached it with a view to acquiring it for $4bn, but nothing came of that. And sometime after that the air began to leak out of the Clubhouse balloon. After months in which much of the chatter was about (and on) the platform, we somehow moved to a point where nobody talks about it any more. Yet Clubhouse still exists, has 10 million users and has raised more than $10m from investors. But now, in a move that smacks of desperation, it’s allowing its US users to share a link to a “live” room that enables non-members to listen in (but not to talk). And the web is alive with pieces trying to explain Clubhouse’s decline.

So what happened? A conjunction of lots of different things, probably. The most important was that vaccination programmes led to an easing of the Covid lockdowns. People who were no longer having to work from home were out and about again, talking to friends and colleagues in person. But other factors were at work too. For example, the decision to open the app to Android users in May 2021 somewhat dented the iPhone “exclusivity” that drove growth in 2020.

And, as always happens when user-generated content balloons online, abusive and unpleasant conversations proliferated. Many of the virtual rooms turned out not to be about discourse but celebrity-puffing or scamming.

As one critic put it: “So many rooms that advertise themselves as hosting big celebrities and names in the worlds of business and entertainment … turn out to be scammers … impersonating celebrities or giving a vague Ted Talk about entrepreneurship from random people who have never … set foot in the industry. Other rooms are often cover-ups for scam businesses.

“A big issue on the app were rooms that claimed to invite people with startup ideas to share with their peers and exchange advice and strategies. The rooms’ hosts would then buy the domain names these startups were looking for and sell them back to them at much higher prices to make a profit.” Clubhouse rooms became, wrote another critic, “like a late-night talkshow where celebrities come together and speak about their family, achievements, passions and plans”.

So how should we view the Clubhouse story? In the long view of history, the app might look like a shooting star, an object of brief wonder that briefly mesmerised a world afflicted with tech-induced attention-deficit disorder. A more prosaic, but possible more realistic, view is that it was just a tech solution looking for a social problem to “solve”. In other words, a typical product of Silicon Valley.

What I’ve been reading

On message
I Didn’t Want It to Be True, But the Medium Really Is the Message is an interesting New York Times op-ed by Ezra Klein.

Ministry of the environment
The late, great James Lovelock outlined the Gaia theory in the article I Speak for the Earth, which is republished on the Resurgence website.

Desperately seeking Susan
Seriously Susan is a terrifically inventive review by Melinda Harvey of Benjamin Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag on the Sydney Review of Books website.

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AI laser probe for prostate cancer enters clinical trials • The Register

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AI software capable of mapping tumor tissue more accurately to help surgeons treat and shrink prostate cancer using a laser-powered needle will soon be tested in real patients during clinical trials.

The National Cancer Institute estimated that approximately 12.6 percent of men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their life. The risk for developing the disease rises over time for men over the age of 50. It’s one of the most curable forms of cancer, considering most cases are caught in the early stages due to regular screening tests.

Treatment for prostate cancer varies depending on the severity of the disease. Patients can undergo hormone therapy, chemotherapy, or surgery to remove tissue. Avenda Health, a medical startup founded in 2017, is developing a new type of treatment that is less invasive. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted an investigational device exemption (IDE) to the company’s invention this week, meaning it can now be used in a clinical study. 

Patients will need to have an MRI scan and a targeted fusion biopsy performed first. The data is processed by Avenda’s AI algorithms in its iQuest software to map where the cancerous cells are located within the prostate. Next, the computer vision-aided model will simulate where best to insert FocalPoint, a probe armed with a laser, to help surgeons treat the patient’s tumor. The heat from the laser gently heats the cancerous cells and kills them with goal of shrinking and removing the whole tumor.

focal_point_iquest_avenda

MRI images where cancer is mapped using iQuest software before and after treatment. Image Credit: Avenda Health

“Historically, prostate cancer treatments of surgery or radiation impacts critical structures like the urethra and nerves which control sexual and urinary function,” Avenda’s CEO and co-founder Shyam Natarajan told The Register. “Our focal laser ablation system, FocalPoint, which is powered by our AI-driven cancer margin software, iQuest, specifically targets tumor tissue and avoids healthy tissue. This means patients no longer lose control over these functions that are so common with traditional treatments, so quality of life is significantly improved.”

The treatment is only effective for men diagnosed with intermediate risk of prostate cancer, a classification that describes tumors being confined within the prostate only. Patients are considered high risk in cases where the cancer has spread beyond the prostate. 

“This is one of the benefits of the iQuest software. Not only can it map the cancer, but it also provides decision support for the physician as they determine the best course of treatment for an individual patient. Not every patient is going to be eligible for focal therapy, and it is important for the physician to distinguish between good focal therapy candidates and not.  iQuest provides useful insights for that decision making process,”  Natarajan said.

Avenda received FDA clearance for its FocalPoint device in 2020. The IDE approval brings the company one step closer to bringing their product to market after clinical trial testing, Brittany Berry-Pusey, co-founder and COO of Avenda, said in a statement. 

“This clinical trial will play a key role in advancing our breakthrough technology to improve prostate cancer care. With no new FDA approvals for the treatment of localized prostate cancer in more than four decades, we look forward to working alongside our clinical sites to collect the data necessary to bring iQuest and FocalPoint to market and into the patient care environment.”

Natarajan told us the company was aiming to begin clinical trials in 2023. ®

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US offers $10m reward for info on five Conti ransomware members

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Rewards for Justice shared a photo of someone it claims to be an associate of the ransomware gang and is offering a reward to identify him and four others.

The US Department of State is offering a $10m reward for any information on five malicious cyber actors who are believed to be high-ranking members of the Conti ransomware gang.

The US has been offering rewards for information on this ransomware gang since May, including a $5m reward for any intel that leads to the arrest of anyone conspiring or attempting to participate in a Conti attack.

Yesterday (11 August), the department’s Rewards for Justice programme shared an alleged photo of an associate of the ransomware gang. The department said on Twitter that it is “trying to put a name to the face” and believes the individual is the hacker known as “Target”.

Illustration showing an image of a man with four figures next to it. A reward offer for information on the Conti ransomware gang.

A request for information by the Rewards for Justice programme. Image: US Department of State/Rewards for Justice

Conti, also known as Wizard Spider, has been linked to a group believed to be based near St Petersburg, Russia. The US has labelled it a “Russian government-linked ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) group”.

The group’s malware is believed to be responsible for more than 1,000 ransomware operations targeting critical infrastructure around the world, from law enforcement agencies to emergency medical services and dispatch centres.

In May 2021, the Conti group was behind the HSE ransomware incident that saw more than 80pc of the IT infrastructure of healthcare services across Ireland impacted. It was said to be the most serious cyberattack ever to hit the State’s critical infrastructure.

The US Department of State previously said the Conti ransomware variant is the “costliest strain of ransomware” ever documented. The FBI estimates that, as of January 2022, there had been more than 1,000 victims of attacks associated with Conti ransomware, with victim payouts exceeding $150m.

When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the Conti group declared its allegiance to the Russian government. Shortly after, a Ukrainian researcher took the cybersecurity world by storm after publishing more than 60,000 internal messages of the ransomware gang.

Raj Samani, chief scientist at cybersecurity firm Rapid7, said the latest reward offer is just “the tip of the iceberg as enforcement agencies make “considerable strides” through public-private collaboration to hold cybercriminals to account.

“Announcing a reward and revealing the details of Conti members sends a message to would-be criminals that cybercrime is anything but risk-free,” said Samani.

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