What is biofabrication?

Biofabrication is the automated production of tissues and organs to address health challenges in medicine. It uses the principles of additive manufacturing to combine cells, gels and fibres into a single construct that can replace a diseased or injured tissue. This was the original definition of this term, however nowadays we can say that it has evolved to a broader concept, mainly due to the variety of applications recently developed. So, we can simplify the definition of biofabrication stating that it is growing materials in a lab using living organisms.

The panel brings together three pioneers applying biofabrication to different areas out of the clinical environment.

Peter Verstrate is a consultant and food scientist involved in a project of meat biofabrication (CulturedBeef). The meat is produced from stem cells of skin tissue and addressed to human consumption. Which is the main motivation for this project? Peter declares that the mean drive is not a commercial one, but a desire of reducing the environmental impact. “The production of meat around the worlds is responsible for more global warming than transport” and it is going to increase, meat consumption is keeps growing (300 billion kg of meat are currently produced every year). And what about the flavor? It just has a neutral taste but it will be developed in the near future, “you can do anything: beef, chicken, jirafe, just where your imagination goes.”

Ginger Krieg Dosier co-founded bioMASON. With a background in architecture, she detected the need of producing construction materials in a different way. Wondering how to produce them in a sustainable way, just as it happens in nature, they came up with the idea of growing bricks using bacteria, sand and water: the used bacteria is an organism from the marine environment that enables coral reefs to form. The sand is put in a mould an inoculated with bacteria. Then it is introduced in an aqueous medium: the dirtier this water is, the better results it gives. The field of opportunities is huge: Can we align this process with the cleaning of water and make it a byproduct of water purification? What if we could grow bricks onsite, saving the huge amount of resources that are spent in the transport of the materials?

Suzanne Lee is CEO at Biocouture. Twelve years ago this fashion designer started to consider what would we be wearing in 50 years time and how would we be thinking about fashion and design. Biocouture produces leather in a lab. In her opinion, fabricating something from the bottom up, using a bacteria as a factory for producing garments will bring a new generation of natural materials with new advantages such as, once again, a pollution reduction. The material looks, feels and smells like leather but it is grown without the fat and hair of the animal, which are sources of toxicity in the traditional leather industry.

Speaking about the kind of business that these initiatives are aiming to, Peter Verstrate declares that Cultured Meat will be ready for scaling in 5 years but they don’t want it to become a giant meat producer, they lean towards a licensing model. Same idea is shared by Ginger Krieg Dosier, she is willing to make it as easy as possible for other material producers who already have a proven distribution channel.

And what are the challenges that these pioneers are facing? For Suzanne it is moving the concept of biofabrication from the medical environment (growing tissues for implants in human bodies) to the commercial market. Peter agrees and ads that the particular case of the meat is very sensitive and the consumer acceptance will be the main challenge. Ginger comments that understanding how materials grow can take a very long time.

Biofabrication, a fascinating topic. And it is only the beginning.

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