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Interview: Lab-grown collagen is more than skin deep



Christopher Gilchrist
Christopher Gilchrist

Jellatech is one step closer to its mission to eradicate animals from the food system. The team has developed a technique to produce high-quality, animal-free collagen, and by doing so, aims to reduce the environmental, ethical and supply issues associated with traditional collagen production. Christopher Gilchrist, senior scientist at Jellatech, tells FoodBev Media about the start-up’s proprietary process and what this could mean for the future of collagen production.


 

Established in 2020, Jellatech’s mission is to develop technologies that can produce high-quality, animal-free collagen and gelatin. How has the company strived to meet this objective in recent months?


We have been developing a platform to produce high-quality “bio-identical” collagen from animal cells, which are the same cells that naturally produce this protein in animal tissues.


Our process starts with just a small – for example, 3mm diameter – tissue biopsy from an animal. We grow these cells in a bioreactor and give them specific instructions so that they produce large amounts of collagen protein. We then separate the collagen from the cells and purify it, yielding a protein that is identical to that derived from animal tissues.


This approach allows us to produce consistent, high-quality collagen while reducing the environmental, ethical and supply issues associated with traditional sources of collagen.


Collagen is widely used in the F&B industry, as well as in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals. Why has this ingredient become so popular?


Collagen is the most abundant protein in most animals, where it provides structure and mechanical strength in tissues such as skin, muscle, tendon and bone. Because collagen is such an abundant and important protein in nature, it has historically found a variety of applications across a wide range of industries.


In the food and beverage industry, purified collagen and gelatin (which is partially denatured collagen) have been used for many years as additives that provide structure and texture to a wide variety of food products. In the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries, collagen is used in areas such as dermal fillers, wound healing, implant coatings and regenerative medicine. On the cosmetics and nutraceuticals side, collagen or collagen breakdown products (peptide fragments) may stimulate tissue-building responses when applied topically or ingested.


The demand for collagen continues to grow at a high rate across all of these applications, but traditional sources for collagen may soon be unable to meet the demand.


What are the main challenges manufacturers face when obtaining this protein ingredient? How is Jellatech providing a solution to these obstacles?


Currently, almost all of the world’s collagen supply comes from livestock agriculture. This source poses many challenges as the world’s population continues to grow and the effects of climate change are increasingly felt, as livestock farming is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and global land and freshwater usage.


In contrast, we believe our cell-derived collagen process will overcome many of these issues, providing an alternative high-quality collagen source that has a lower climate cost, is consistent, clean, ethical and safe, and can be produced on-demand from a limited set of raw materials, with less dependence on supply chains.


Jellatech recently announced that it had created a fully functional human collagen made from a proprietary cell line. Could you tell us more about this discovery and what it will mean for the food and beverage industry?


Collagen used in the food and beverage industry is typically extracted from bovine, marine or porcine tissue sources. For biomedical and some cosmetic applications. However, collagen produced by human cells is often preferred and sought after, as it is functionally identical to the collagen protein found in human tissues and may have a lower risk for unwanted immune responses.


Sources of human collagen have to date been very limited, but we have now begun using our platform (initially developed to produce bovine collagen) to generate fully-functional human collagen. This will provide a new, on-demand source of high-quality human collagen for these applications.


What techniques are used to create this functional collagen? Is this product easily scalable?


Collagen is a special protein with a unique full-length, triple-helical structure that gives the protein many of its important functional properties. The cells that naturally produce collagen in mammals contain specialised machinery that allows them to efficiently synthesise the protein through a series of complex steps, but this process has been very challenging to replicate in non-mammalian systems that are typically used in commercial protein production (e.g. bacteria, plants).


At Jellatech, our approach has been to encourage the cells that naturally produce collagen to make it at a high rate, resulting in a collagen product that is ‘bio-identical’ – in composition, structure and function – to the native protein found in animal tissues.

While scaling this sort of approach has traditionally been more challenging, recent and rapidly accelerating advances and efficiencies across the alternative protein industry have made this approach much more feasible and scalable for a variety of applications.


How does Jellatech’s cell-based bovine and human collagen differ in comparison to collagen created through fermentation, and plant-based collagen?


As mentioned above, collagen’s large and complex structure makes it very challenging to synthesise in non-mammalian production systems, resulting in products which can lack much of native collagen’s structure and (importantly!) function. Often, these products may just be small fragments of the complete protein and have limited applications.


In contrast, Jellatech’s bovine and human collagen products have the structure and function of the native protein found in tissues, making it useful for any application where animal-derived collagen is currently being used, except human collagen would not be used in the F&B industry.


It has been reported that collagen production (e.g. bovine/marine) has had damaging effects on the environment. How does Jellatech’s proprietary technique reduce/avoid these?


Collagen derived via livestock farming places major demands on the world’s land and freshwater supplies, is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and has supply chains that are increasingly susceptible to the effects of climate change.


Jellatech’s cell-cultivated collagen would provide an alternate source of this important protein that requires fewer resources: it can be grown in a clean facility with a small land footprint using a set of basic raw materials that are less susceptible to supply chain and climate change issues, with a lower overall climate cost.


What’s next for Jellatech and the cell-based collagen F&B industry?


Currently, we are working on scaling up our process to a pilot scale and looking to partner with collagen users across a range of industries, from food and beverage to biomedical.


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