Technology

The father and son planning meat-free immortality

Andras Forgacs, Gabor Forgacs and David Rowan Image copyright Wired
Image caption Father (middle) and son (left) took to the stage at the Wired conference

Prof Gabor Forgacs and his son Andras founded two rather unusual businesses.

While other fathers and sons team up as butchers, builders or solicitors, this pair have decided to use their shared expertise to get to grips with more weighty problems.

Organovo grows human tissue and has its sights set on carving a path towards immortality, while Modern Meadow is trying to solve the world food crisis by growing meat and leather in the lab.

Father and son took to the stage at the recent Wired conference in London to speak about their cutting-edge companies, their own relationship and why they may have to rein in their ambitions.

Image copyright Organovo
Image caption The process of bioprinting organs is painstaking and slow

Organovo was set up by Hungarian-born Dr Forgacs, after he made the decision to quit his career as a theoretical physicist and retrain as a biologist - taking classes with undergraduates.

Those classes left him with a pretty lofty ambition - to grow organs that could mimic or even improve on existing ones.

He set about developing a process to print multi-cellular tissues - dubbed bio-printing - in 2005, and two years later founded Organovo with colleagues Keith Murphy and Dr Eric Michael David.

Its ultimate aim is to mass produce organs that could create a future in which humans, like cars, have regular services that keep them living indefinitely.

"If we could replace organs, we could live forever, and then it is up to us whether we want that," he told the audience at the recent Wired conference in London.

He admits there is currently a lot of hype around bio-printing, particularly the idea of "growing" full organs.

"Bio-printing does not result in a viable biological structure. We cannot yet make big structures like livers or hearts," he said.

"If it is possible, it will take a long time, so don't smoke or drink too much."

Image copyright Organovo
Image caption The bio-printing process can create a range of tissues

Organovo uses a process in which bio-ink - made up of human tissue - is dispensed from a bio-printer layer by layer to build up tissues.

The process can be tailored to produce tissues in a variety of formats.

It can currently make a range of products, including a vascular graft, liver tissue fragments and cardiac patches.

"If a person had terminal liver disease, what we could do is temporarily keep that person alive until a donor can be found," said Dr Forgacs.

And that is pretty useful in a world where people on transplant waiting lists outnumbers the amount of donor organs by a huge margin.

Dr Alan Faulkner-Jones, from the biomedical microengineering group at Heriot-Watt University, thinks it will take some time before scientists can make organs on demand.

"There is no technology that exists now that is capable of printing an organ," he told the BBC..

"The task of getting enough cells to print would be very expensive and nearly impossible, and keeping those cells happy and not starved of nutrients would be very difficult."

It would require a rethink in the printing process to allow the design of larger structures, he said.

"Another way to do it would be to mimic nature and start off with a small structure and allow it to grow," he said.

This technique has had some success - in 2013 researchers at the Yokohama City University in Japan were able to generate human liver cell buds in mice, and Organovo has also created tiny livers.

Dr Forgacs remains hopeful that, once the obstacles have been overcome, it may be possible to create organs that function better than the ones we were born with.

"Our organs have developed over millions of years, but are they the best? We could create a structure that is even better than your heart, made from your own cells, and then there is a chance we could live forever," he told the Wired 2015 audience.

Like all fathers, he would probably love to offer his son the gift of immortality - but, for now, he is just happy to be working with him.

"I couldn't see the wood for the trees in what I was doing. It is a good thing to have a son who is a businessman," he said.

Son Andras explained to the Wired audience how the pair worked.

"I am the business brain and he is the mad scientist," he said.

Image copyright Organovo
Image caption In June, Organovo printed tiny livers and other tissues that could be used to help test drugs

Like his father, he started off in science but soon switched his focus.

"I was geeking out on biology, and I studied pre-med but fell in with the wrong crowd and ended up on Wall Street," he said.

He set up Modern Meadow after a stint abroad.

"I was living in China, and saw that some of the products that we were developing at Organovo could help with supply problems," Mr Forgcas said.

"If you can grow muscle, can you grow meat? And that made me think - what if you could make meat and leather without harming animals or the environment?"

An EU study predicts lab-grown meat will use 99.7% less land, 94% less water and contribute 98.8% less greenhouse gases.

And it is a lucrative market, with the meat industry worth an estimated $1 trillion annually and the leather industry $63bn.

At the Wired conference, Mr Forgacs had samples of a product dubbed steak chips - to share with the audience. Described as "a crunchy form of beef jerky", it seemed to go down OK with those that ate it or at least everyone was too polite to say if they did not like it.

While the Wired guinea-pigs might be a more discerning bunch, the idea of synthetic meat has not gone down so well with the public. A Pew Research survey conducted in 2014 suggested only 20% of Americans would be happy to eat meat grown in a lab.

Delightful products

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Synthetic burgers had mixed reviews, with some saying they would not eat lab-grown meat

A test-tube burger developed by scientist Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and served up to two volunteers a few years ago also received lukewarm reviews.

Ironically, the product might have been just too meaty, according to Dr Faulkner-Jones.

"I understand that they made them from 100% lab-grown meat," he said.

"People are so used to having all the extra stuff that we put in burgers that they don't know what real meat tastes like."

Modern Meadow told the BBC its focus would be on "products that delight".

"A hamburger is ground-up scrap meat - we don't aspire to that," a spokeswoman said.

The Brooklyn-based start-up uses a technique known as tissue engineering - also called bio-fabrication - to create meat products and leather directly from the cells of animals.

Once the cells are taken, they are grown into sheets, which are layered and fused together to form a hide.

The process is not without controversy.

The handful of companies experimenting with lab-grown meat, including Modern Meadow, have used fetal bovine serum (FBS) to harvest the cells.

Given this is taken from the foetuses of slaughtered cows, there have been huge ethical questions about its use.

"In the early stages, FBS was one of the ingredients, but it has been completely phased out. There are moral issues, and you can't use it at scale," said Suzanne Lee, Modern Meadow's chief creative officer.

She said the company was currently concentrating on growing leather rather than meat and was working with several fashion brands.

She declined to give details of the process being used but said it would be several years before they had a finished product.

The Forgacs family may be finding the path to meat-free immortality more difficult than they had hoped - but if they can make a success of Organovo and Modern Meadow, they should be in business for many generations to come.

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