Soaring demand for meat alternatives has prompted Japan-based Osaka University to team up with Kyoto biotechnology research corporation Shimadzu and Tokyo consulting firm Sigmaxyz to create a new food tech ecosystem, which includes the development of cultured meat via its bioprinting technology. Furthermore, the three parties have signed a collaboration deal to use bioprinting to solve environmental and food issues and improve healthcare, drug discovery, and medicine.
The collaboration’s core foundation is a bioprinting technology that creates muscle tissue structures developed by Michiya Matsusaki, an Associate Professor at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Engineering. At his lab, Matsusaki and his group of researchers have been exploring how to produce artificial steak-like meat, especially the highly marbled Wagyu steak.
Many of the cultured meats reported so far have a minced structure consisting only of muscle cells, making it challenging to reproduce complex structures. However, Matsusaki and his co-researchers developed a bioprinting process that uses 3D printing to produce the different fibrous tissues (muscle, fat, and blood vessels) and then integrates them into a bundle.
By investigating how to culture stem cells taken from Wagyu cattle, Matsusaki’s team has been assembling them using a 3D printer to make a meat alternative of muscle, fat, and blood vessels that mimic the arrangement of a conventional steak. In 2021, they succeeded in creating steak-like meat measuring five millimeters in diameter and ten millimeters long and consisting of muscles, fat tissue, and blood vessels. When sliced perpendicularly, the beef had a marbling structure resembling Wagyu beef.
Researchers can create “cultured meat with a controlled arrangement of muscle, fat, and blood vessels through this technology.” In addition, this bioprinting methodology has made it possible to reproduce the uniquely beautiful marble design called Sashi, characteristic of Wagyu beef, and “delicately adjusting the fat and muscle components,” described Shimadzu in a recent statement.
An expert in biomaterial and biomedical engineering, Matsusaki has shown engineered marbled Wagyu meat by using a newly developed bioprinting technique. The work has attracted a great deal of attention both domestically and internationally. However, Matsusaki anticipates that “you can’t eat it yet, so you’re going to have to wait. But everyone seems to be very interested in it.” Indeed, that interest led to this collaboration.
Ultimately, Osaka University and Shimadzu will jointly develop bioprinting equipment to automate cultured meat production, hoping to present it in time for the 2025 World Expo in Osaka, held between April 13 and October 13 of that year. According to Sankei News, the team will initially target high-quality meat that exceeds 100 grams and ¥10,000 (roughly $80).
Thanks to bioprinting technology, we have seen companies devising new meat alternatives in the last few years. From Spanish startup Novameat’s proprietary bioprinting technique to MeaTech 3D, a company dedicated to creating cultured meat, the broad spectrum of possibilities with the technology is taking the “fake meat” industry by force. However, at its core, bioprinters were developed to create living tissues from bioinks of cells, nutrients, and other biocompatible substances. Therefore, in promoting the creation of cultured meat, the Japanese partners will also develop healthcare models in regenerative medicine and drug discovery, such as internal organs using human cells.
Each of the three collaborators will play a crucial role in the partnership. Osaka University will continue its efforts to develop tissue engineering technologies, including the 3D bioprinting technique developed by Matsusaki. So far, his unique approach has been ideal for building muscle, fat, and blood vessel fibers, but reproducing more complex tissue and organ structures has been a challenge and will be one of the targets in the future.
Osaka University has indicated it will focus on developing the essential technologies to realize new “reconstruction of complex tissue and organ structures” and “long-term culture of organ models by the circulation of nutrients and oxygen through blood vessels.”
Shimadzu will leverage its know-how to automate cultured meat production and analyze the cultured meat’s taste, texture, flavor, chewiness, and nutritional content. With over 40 years of history, this company has a lot of expertise to draw from. Notably, in recent years, it has focused on developing equipment and technology to automate and streamline the cell culture process through artificial intelligence and robot technology and engaged in research with the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization to analyze the functional components of agricultural products. Further, Sigmaxyz will serve as the program management office for the social implementation of 3D bioprinting technology.
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