Irfan Tahir is a mechanical engineer, in which he holds a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota. Currently, Irfan is a Ph.D. candidate and New Harvest fellow at the biomaterials lab at the University of Vermont where he is tissue engineering scaffolds for cultured meat. Previously, Irfan studied at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey for his bachelor’s. Irfan’s hometown is Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Website: www.irfantahir.com.
What originally inspired you to pursue research in cellular agriculture?
My undergraduate degree was in Mechanical Engineering and as part of the curriculum, I had to take at least one biology course. The professor of that course, Dr. Erdem Erikçi, was the one who inspired me to switch my research focus from robotics to biomaterials. A few years later, he advised me to look into this field as he is also the co-founder of a cultured meat start-up called Biftek. In the message, he said, “I strongly recommend you to keep your eye on this field while determining your PhD project topic.” After a bit of googling, I learned about New Harvest and then applied for the New Harvest PhD Fellowship in 2021. Since then, I have been conducting research in cellular agriculture and cultured meat as part of my fellowship.
Your main research focus is on scaffold engineering. Could you walk us through your research to date and why you wanted to focus on this very specific aspect of the cultured meat ecosystem?
The focus of my PhD research is to investigate the potential of alginate, a plant-based polymer, for use as a 3D tissue-engineered scaffold for cultured meat. By using 3D scaffolds made out of hydrogels, we can create structured cuts of meats instead of ground meat. Scaffolds also increase the available surface area for the cells to grow on. In our lab at the University of Vermont, we have the ability to create scaffolds using different chemistries and subsequently grow animal cells (beef, pig, rabbit etc. ) on them. So far, we have been able to show that we can control the proliferation rates of muscle cells using the substrate stiffness of our hydrogel scaffolds, as shown in our published research. I think this is an important area of research as we need to find animal-free alternatives to the current benchmark materials for cultured meat scaffolds.
Can you explain the scientific principles behind cellular agriculture and the technologies involved in producing animal products without raising and slaughtering animals?
Cellular agriculture involves any commodity (food or otherwise), that is traditionally sourced from animals but can now be produced without the animals, in a lab or factory. The obvious one that comes to mind is cultured meat (also known as cultivated meat or lab-grown meat), but it can also include items like eggs, dairy, wool, fur, or leather. Scientifically speaking, there are 4 pillars of cultured meat. The first pillar is the isolation or optimization of cells. These animal cells can be sourced from a cow by taking a small biopsy under anesthesia, without causing too much harm to the animal. Realistically, the animal does feel some pain and usually, the biopsy size is about as big as a coin. Once the cells are isolated from the animals, we use a liquid diet consisting of growth factors, salts, vitamins, and sugars to grow these cells in a lab. This is the second pillar of cultured meat. Thirdly, we use scaffolds to give the cells support and structure as they grow. And fourthly, if we want to grow these cells in bulk (think trillions of cells per batch), we need to grow these animal cells in a bioreactor, a large steel tank with inlets and outlets. Finally, once these four conditions are satisfied, we can hope to have a piece of cultured meat that was obtained without slaughtering the animal, with a similar biological profile as traditionally slaughtered meat.
In your opinion, what are the major technical and scientific challenges that need to be overcome in the development and commercialization of cellular agriculture products?
There are many, and there are many extremely talented scientists and engineers all around the world who are working on overcoming these challenges. Some that come to mind are the high cost of growth factors, limited bioreactor capacities, supply-chain issues with procurement of raw materials, and shortage of talent specifically targeted toward cellular agriculture.
In addition to being a PhD candidate at the University of Vermont, you are also a fellow at New Harvest. For people that are unfamiliar, could you tell us a bit about New Harvest and what motivated you to get involved?
I can confidently say that New Harvest changed my life! Essentially, New Harvest is a non-profit that funds fundamental research in cellular agriculture. They are currently funding my PhD and I am also a part of their fellow network which provides a sense of community within my research field. New Harvest gives me the freedom to do the kind of science I want to do, rather than what another funding agency or my adviser wants me to do. They really don’t micromanage my research which creates an incredible sense of independence, enjoyment, and fulfillment.
How do you see the future of cellular agriculture evolving, and what do you think will be the most significant changes or advancements in the next five to ten years?
I think very soon we will start seeing more cellular agriculture products in high-end restaurants around the U.S. Soon after that, we might see some hybrid food items hit the grocery shelf. Although I do think it will take some time (10-15 years) for broad adoption of these productions, nonetheless I am very excited to see them available for purchase for the public in the U.S.
What is your personal goal within cellular agriculture and what types of opportunities do you envision yourself pursuing after the completion of your PhD?
I was really lucky to start research in this field early on, which means that now I have many opportunities to choose from. These range from working as a scientist in the industry, continuing in academia as a post-doc, finding my own start-up, working for a non-profit like New Harvest, or diverting into consulting. Fortunately, I still have a year left in my PhD, so I do have some time to reflect.