Streamlining and redesigning an existing manufacturing processes
Many processes for biopharmaceutical manufacturing were designed at a time where process efficiency was considered unimportant
(3). More recently, manufacturers have sought to increase the efficiency of each unit operation, but they are only now starting
to consider redesigning the entire process train to see if cost savings can be made through streamlining the process as a
whole. The trend towards process streamlining owes a lot to FDA’s quality-by-design (QbD) principles, which themselves derive
from the design-of-experiments (DOE) concept. QbD considers experimental design as a landscape with peaks of efficiency and
troughs of inefficiency. Similarly, the design space of a manufacturing process is littered with efficiency peaks and troughs,
but there is not always a simple path leading upwards to the most efficient process. Therefore, process design incorporating
efficiency and quality from first principles involves going back to the drawing board and evaluating the critical attributes
that contribute to an efficient process.
Most companies are now applying these principles and actively streamlining their processing strategies wherever possible.
Antibodies take center stage because they represent more than half of all biopharmaceutical products in development and their
common properties mean that it is possible for companies to share process efficiency data that are applicable across platforms
(10, 11). It is for this reason that antibody manufacturing has benefitted from the development of so-called generic platform
processes, which are broadly similar for all antibodies but can be tweaked to match the specific properties of individual
Antibody manufacturing provides an excellent example of the application of process redesign and streamlining principles to
increase productivity, cut costs, and maintain product quality. Most manufacturers use three chromatography steps for antibody
purification, starting with a very expensive Protein A capture step that is placed immediately after clarification, followed
by anion exchange (AEX) chromatography in flow-through mode to extract negatively-charged contaminants such as host cell protein
(HCP), endotoxins, host DNA, and leached Protein A, and then either cation exchange (CEX) chromatography or hydrophobic interaction
chromatography (HIC) in retention mode to remove positively-charged residual contaminants and also product related impurities
such as aggregates and degradation products (13). Modern platform processes also serve as orthogonal strategies for virus
Realizing that no further cost savings could be gained by scaling up the aforementioned process, Pfizer explored the design
space around the standard process and found that certain modifications could reduce costs considerably without impacting on
the quality of the antibody (14). They introduced two types of process modifications, one in which the order of the polishing
steps was reversed and another in which different separation technologies were used to increase process capacity (i.e., using
membrane absorbers for the flow-through chromatography step and replacing the depth filtration step with continuous centrifugation)
(15). These changes increased the efficiency of purification to such an extent that, for some antibody products, the cation
exchange step became unnecessary, reducing the process from three columns to two columns or even a single column. Not only
did this save the direct costs of column resin and buffers, but also reduced the process time by >45%, which doubled the productivity
in terms of batch processing (14).
Looking with a fresh eye at older technologies
The capacity crunch in downstream processing has been avoided or overcome in other industries by adopting simple and inexpensive
technologies (16). In the bulk chemical industry, the conventional pharmaceutical industry, and the food and detergent industries,
expensive processing solutions such as chromatography would never be considered because the costs of implementation would
not be sustainable in these high-volume, low-margin processes. Is it possible for this simple approach to be applied also
in biopharmaceutical manufacturing?
Several recent developments suggest that simpler technologies could indeed find a niche in biopharmaceutical manufacturing,
particularly in the early processing steps where the complex mixture of particulates and solutes have the most potential to
foul expensive membranes and resins (16, 17). Tangential flow microfiltration, depth filtration, and (continuous) centrifugation
are the current methods of choice for the clarification of the feed stream, and one or more of these processes may be employed
in series to remove larger particulates until finally a polishing depth filter or dead-end filter can be used to remove fines
and thus reduce feed stream turbidity (18). Efficient and inexpensive clarification becomes more challenging with higher-titer
cell culture processes because these are characterized by a greater cell density and often a longer process time, resulting
in a higher solids content, more particle diversity (i.e., size and physical properties), and most challenging of all, a greater
proportion of fine particles that escape coarse filtration. A technology that is widely employed in the beverage industry
and also in wastewater processing is the use flocculants to link small particles together and create easier-to-remove aggregates.
Flocculation is achieved using polymers that bind simultaneously to the surfaces of several particles through electrostatic
interactions, creating larger particles that may sink under gravity or may be removed more easily by centrifugation or filtration.
In the bioprocessing industry, flocculation has been used to help remove whole cells from fermentation broth, but more recently
it has also been used to remove fine cell debris and proteins. A simple and inexpensive strategy recently applied in antibody
manufacturing is the creation of a calcium phosphate precipitate by adding calcium chloride to a final concentration of 30
mM and then potassium phosphate to a final concentration of 20 mM. Precipitation traps cell debris in larger particles, allowing
removal by centrifugation for 10 min at 340 x g and yields a clear supernatant with the recovery of ~95% of the antibody (19).
Interestingly, this strategy also removes some soluble host cell proteins and nucleic acids.
Precipitation is widely used as a purification approach in the bulk-chemical industry, and given that precipitation can be
induced by simple changes in the environment (e.g., varying the temperature or pH, increasing the salt concentration [salting
out], or adding organic solvents), it should be easy to apply the same principles in bioprocessing (20). Precipitation has,
therefore, been used to remove soluble impurities from the feed stream during antibody manufacturing, and these solids can
then be trapped by filtration or pelleted by centrifugation leaving a clear feed stream relatively enriched for the target
protein (20). In an innovative adaptation of this approach, the antibody itself can be precipitated under mild conditions
and recovered from a collected pellet thus removing many contaminants in a single step (21). This is possible because the
mild precipitation conditions allow the protein to be redissolved without loss of activity. Several groups have developed
methods to precipitate antibodies in large-scale processes, and this could replace Protein A chromatography in the long term
(22, 23). Precipitation methods using n-octanoic acid are used for the removal of contaminants in at least two industrial
antibody-manufacturing processes (24, 25).
In the final purification steps, another traditional technology being considered for use in biopharmaceutical manufacturing
is crystallization. This technology involves the separation of a solute from a supersaturated solution by encouraging the
growth of crystals. The crystallization process involves the formation of a regularly-structured solid phase, which impedes
the incorporation of contaminants or solvent molecules, and therefore, yields products of exceptional purity suitable for
the preparation of pharmaceutical proteins, coupled with the realization that protein crystals enhance protein stability and
provide a useful vehicle for drug delivery (26). Protein crystallization has been developed into a commercial technology for
drug stabilization and delivery and several current manufacturing processes involve crystallization including the production
of recombinant insulin, aprotinin and Apo2L (27).