$6mn grant to advance purification membranes for viral vectors

With the grant, researchers will create a scalable, downstream purification platform that will replace the standard processes, accelerating viral vector production for vaccines.

3d illustration of adenovirus - a common viral vector

Researchers from the University of Arkansas (U of A) and two partner institutions have been awarded a $6 million grant by the US’s National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop purification membranes for future large-scale manufacturing of viral vectors and virus-like particles.

According to the team, the successful development of commercial-grade purification membranes will increase access to new treatments for genetic and chronic diseases, especially for middle- and low-income people.

Viral vectors are harmless, modified versions of viruses used to deliver the functional genetic material within vaccines and gene therapies to human cells.

“Development of cost-effective, large-scale biomanufacturing for the purification of viral vectors and virus-like particles is a major challenge,” commented Xianghong Qian, professor of biomedical engineering at the U of A and principal investigator for the project.

According to the team, the COVID-19 vaccine development race exemplified this challenge, as vaccine production was delayed when manufacturers struggled to produce membrane filters to purify viral vectors and virus-like particles. The primary problems were capacity and fouling of membranes, as well as membranes performing robustly under a range of operating conditions.

Using the grant, researchers led by Qian will create a scalable, downstream purification platform that will replace the standard processes of centrifugation and resin-based chromatography, both of which researchers suggest are difficult to scale up in manufacturing.

The project will require feedstock production of two common viral vectors for gene-therapy, virus-like particles for vaccine applications and advanced microfiltration for bioreactor harvesting. The researchers will design, fabricate and characterise high-capacity membranes and develop membrane chromatography for separating full and empty viral capsids. 

The researchers plan to use state-of-the-art bioanalytical methods for detection and quantification and will develop a readiness and acceptance study to help drive the technology toward commercial production. 

Co-principal investigators Qian, Bob Beitle (professor of chemical engineering) and Ranil Wickramasinghe (Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering) and several others from U of A will collaborate with researchers at the University of Kentucky and Clemson University, all US.