Technologies for Downstream Processing in Biologics

The author describes recent developments to help overcome the downstream processing bottleneck. This article is part of a special issue on Sterile Manufacturing and Bioprocessing.
May 01, 2011
Volume 2011 Supplement, Issue 3

This article is part of a special issue on Bioprocessing and Sterile Manufacturing

Biologics comprise a huge variety of different molecules, activities, and applications and mostly try to mimic functions of natural molecules. Generally, they are of a rather complex nature and often consist of different functions on the same molecule (e.g., Fc receptor and antigen-recognition site of an antibody). Typically, proteins can present different possible modifications, such as glycosylation, disulfide bridges, specific carbon and nitrogen terminal groups, or they have been chemically modified, such as pegylated or conjugated proteins. Biologics may be based on carbohydrates (e.g., the meningitis vaccine), peptides (e.g., insulin), lipid structures, parts of microorganism cell walls, complete cells (e.g., stem-cell treatments, or Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (tuberculosis vaccines), or nucleic acids (e.g., plasmids and genome DNA for gene therapy). Furthermore, the active substance or complex does not consist of one molecule, but a mixture of different ones, such as congeners and isoforms. The ratio of each molecule within the mixture of the family can be crucial for activity. The importance of this ratio becomes more and more visible as analytical methods advance.

Advances in upstream processing

This extremely large variety of molecules necessitates a broad range of production systems, and analytical characterization and quantification methods. Most first-generation biological products were extracted from natural sources, such as animal tissue, human plasma, and wild stem microorganisms, and further separated with basic techniques (e.g., precipitation, centrifugation, and filtration). However, because of the risk of contamination and incompatibility, these traditional techniques have been replaced by more advanced biotechnologies, such as recombinant techniques or methods that can significantly reduce the potential level of contaminants. These methods include solvent, heat, gamma irradiation and microwave treatments, nanofiltration, and anion exchange chromatography. Initial hybridoma monoclonal antibodies or fusion proteins have also been replaced by humanized ones, and the third generation of biologics now focuses on further defined structures with less microheterogeneities and fewer aggregates to avoid adverse immune reactions. Another focus of new technologies is the expression of antibodies or antibody fragments that provide certain functions by, for example, being linked to cell-killing antibody drug conjugates.

In the 1990s and the early 2000s, much progress was made in biological upstream processing with productive high-expression systems, effective clone selection, defined culture media, process intensification and single-use components. Progress also was made with regard to improvements in analytical methods, which were developed to further characterize and quantify molecules in terms of structure, identity, activity, purity, microheterogeneity, quantification, and safety. These advances were crucial for downstream development because they helped to further characterize starting materials, thereby providing more insight into quality and mass balance during processing. As such, target specifications are now stricter and more demanding compared with early biologics.

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