Whether she’s creating ways to better understand heart attacks or developing cultured meat, Breanna Duffy, EG21, is using her biomedical engineering education to create a safer, more sustainable world. She’s giving scientists and physicians new opportunities to study the effects of a heart attack—without putting a patient at risk. And, as research operations and outreach director at New Harvest, a nonprofit organization focused on cellular agriculture, she is a charting a path toward greener meat consumption.
Why did you focus your dissertation research on the heart?
I have a vivid memory of learning about the totally artificial heart in high school, and I was enthralled that you could engineer something as critical as a heart and use it to save people’s lives. Then in college, I learned about tissue engineering—actually creating real tissue you could transplant into someone, but we’re still a long way from being able to do that with a whole heart. The main reason why people need heart transplants is because of heart attacks, so I wanted to develop a tissue-engineered human model of the heart to study heart attacks and their effect in a lab.
Using human-induced pluripotent stem cells, which can differentiate into any cell type, I was able to culture heart cells. They are very cool—you can watch them beat on their own under a microscope! To create the three-dimensional structure of a heart, I built a scaffold material for the cells to grow on.
In the body, your heart pumps blood through tissues to keep them alive. To recreate that in the lab, much of my research was spent designing a device that could keep the tissues alive in culture. The device could also be used to induce a condition similar to a heart attack, where a blood vessel is blocked in the heart. I hope other researchers can use what I’ve created to look at things like how immune cells affect the heart after an injury.
How has that led to your work on cellular agriculture?
Over the last few years, I became very concerned about climate and environmental justice. Food is at the intersection of human and environmental health. It is estimated that agriculture contributes close to 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions while a large portion of our population is food insecure. I discovered that the technologies I was using for creating cardiac muscle are also being used to create animal muscle. That’s cellular agriculture: creating more sustainable animal products from cell cultures.
I joined New Harvest in December 2020; it’s an opportunity to apply my deep knowledge of tissue engineering I gained in my Ph.D. I’m serving as a bridge between scientists, entrepreneurs and regulatory agencies trying to develop these novel food products.
What do you want the world to know about cultured meat?
If we are going to meet key climate goals, we need to appeal to people who are not going to become vegetarians. If we can produce the same product without raising and slaughtering an entire animal, it significantly lowers the environmental cost.
At the end of 2020, Singapore gave regulatory approval for cultured meat—the first country in the world to do so. The field is really accelerating.
Now, we’re working on the next big challenge: growing cultured meat like steak or chicken. Producing a burger is a lot easier; you don’t care about tissue structure as much. But to get the very specific texture and marbling of a cut of meat, that’s a harder engineering problem, but again, one that’s very aligned with my Ph.D. work. I’m excited to be part of that next step.
Profile written by Karen Shih.
For more student profiles and full Commencement coverage, visit commencement.tufts.edu/coverage/engineering-graduate-2021.