The Island of Dr Valeti

I was reading the newspaper, when I chanced upon an article about a start-up company in the Bay area creating chicken from stem cells. The concept was intriguing for sure, but what caught my attention was the CEO of the company, Memphis Meats—Dr Uma Valeti. He was a close friend and colleague of mine.

Dr Valeti, or Uma as we called him, was from a small town—Vijayawada. I first met Uma at the University of Buffalo. He was a year ahead of me, but due to the calendar, we overlapped. We hit it off instantly and got to be good friends. We got nominated to be chief residents at the Veterans Hospital, and were given an office to share. After running the programme together for the first few months, we alternated every month. During my months off, I would continue clinical work, while Uma on his off months would go to the research lab. This may have planted the seed for his future project.

We were as different as chalk and cheese. Uma was the quiet and organised type. He was looking to change the education system into the PowerPoint area, and I would find the office neatly organised when I took over. I on the other hand, used to fly by the proverbial seat of my pants. I used to excuse my disorganised behaviour as spontaneity. When Uma came to take over, he would shake his head at the complete chaos in the office. I suspect, he wondered how in the world I became chief of anything.

We both, of course, wanted to pursue cardiology. Uma left for The Mayo Clinic and I continued at the University of Buffalo. We would call each other and keep ourselves updated as our careers took us to different parts of the country. We both pursued interventional cardiology. When I heard about his company, I called him and we played phone tag for a bit. From what I gathered from the web, he was promoting his company and drawing the interest and investment potential of people like Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Jack Welch.

When we finally got in touch, I asked how he got around to it, and what made him quit a stable career in cardiology. Uma is one of those fascinating individuals. He told me he was always upset about how animals were treated and how meat was produced. He also realised that the growth of the human population would outstrip the meat production. There is growing evidence that the way meat is produced, with antibiotics and hormones added to animal diet, is contributing to most of the chronic diseases and possibly to types of cancer. He decided to do something about it.

He got together with a PhD candidate and was able to consistently produce meat through culture of stem cells. No antibiotics or hormones. He then decided to try and make this into a commercial venture. This needed a leap of faith, and after commuting and staying away from his family, he was able to get funding. And, Memphis Meats was born.

The concept is so futuristic and leads to the intriguing question: 'If you were a vegetarian, would you eat meat if it did not involve killing an animal?' There is an argument against, with a lot of people not believing in anything artificially made or genetically modified. I asked my daughter whether she would eat lab-made meat. Her eyes lit up, ‘Can he make a hot dog?’ she asked. She really didn’t care where it came from. I think if people knew where the meat was coming from and what animals go through, there may be a change in the way they think, not to mention global issues like world hunger.

One of the facts that surprised me was that a staggering 20-30 percent of green house emissions (depending on what study you read) are caused by raising animals for meat. Raising animals involves using natural resources, land, water, and the effluent methane is a major contributor to emissions. It takes about 440 gallons of water, with the latest technology to produce one pound of beef. The perfect meat however is not cheap. Whether the economics work out is another million-dollar question.

I had read a book by H.G. Wells when I was in middle school, The Island of Dr. Moreau. It was in the genre of science fiction and about a supposedly crazy scientist who inserted human DNA into animals in search of a higher human being. The world is now the island. Welcome to the future.

Dr Arab is director of the cardiology division at Florida Hospital Memorial Medical Centre in Dayton Beach, US