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October 01, 2015 (Vol. 35, No. 17)

Twists and Turns in Protein Expression

In Early Drug Discovery it’s Often Unclear Which Recombinant Proteins Will Be Affected by Changing the Host Cell

  • When drug developers use different cell lines for manufacturing and preclinical research, they risk generating inconsistent results, proteins with various structures and functions. Then, confounded by variability, drug developers may lavish attention on irrelevant candidates and overlook promising candidates. 

    To avoid misleading themselves, drug developers must find ways to avoid or account for protein variants, which include post-translational modifications, particularly alternative glycosylations. Such variants occur all too frequently among different host cell lines, an extensive body of literature documents.

    “Variability is most evident when comparisons are made between mammalian and nonmammalian cells,” says James Brady, Ph.D., vice president of technical applications and customer support at MaxCyte. “But depending on the protein that is being produced, even different mammalian cell lines, such as HEK and CHO, will exhibit substantial differences in post-translational modifications.” Differences can lead to altered protein stability, activity, or in vivo half-life.

    It is often unclear during the early drug discovery process which recombinant proteins will be affected by changing the host cell. However, misleading early-stage data are associated with significant costs and extended timelines. It therefore makes sense to adopt a single host cell for all stages of the development pipeline. That is the rationale behind MaxCyte’s flow electroporation transfection platform.

  • Large-Scale Electroporation

    Chemical transfection based on lipids or polymers are the most common alternatives to electroporation for large-scale transient transfection. However, reagent costs, lot-to-lot reagent variability, scale-up difficulties, and low transfection efficiency with certain cell types often are significant challenges of chemical transfection, particularly in biomanufacturing-relevant cells such as CHO.

    Viral transfection vectors are another possibility. “While viral vectors may be more effective than chemical methods for introducing genes into certain difficult-to-transfect cell types, producing viral vectors often requires the development of packaging or producer cell lines,” Dr. Brady explains. “There are also biosafety concerns associated with some viral vectors.”

    Unlike stable transfection, transient gene expression does not involve integration of the transgene into the host chromosome. Therefore, influences of the integration site on protein expression levels or other protein attributes are not evident. Rather the host cell’s genetic background, media/feed formulation, and culture conditions are the most significant factors influencing product quality, regardless of whether the protein is produced by stable or transient expression.

    While high-end titers for stably transfected cells are now advancing into the low double-digit grams per liter, average titers are still in the lower single digits. Thus, the titers of 2–3 g/L that have recently been reported for transient expression via flow electroporation in nonengineered CHO cells are beginning to rival those of stable cell lines.

    “So far, upper limits to titer by stable or transient expression have not been reached,” Dr. Brady tells GEN. “It is likely that innovations in vector design, advances in cell-line engineering, and improvements to cell-culture processes will lead to continued advances in both stable and transient titers.”

  • Monitoring Expression

    Click Image To Enlarge +
    A scientist at Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies operating an ambr250 mini-bioreactor system from Sartorius Stedim Biotech business unit TAP Biosystems.

    Analytical methods are crucial for quantifying not only protein expression but also quality. A group at Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies led by Greg Adams, Ph.D., the company’s director of analytical development, is promoting analytical techniques applicable throughout a molecule’s life cycle.

    Depending on the expression system, the Fujifilm Diosynth team focuses mostly on aggregation, glycosylation, and heterogeneity. The team employs a mix of rapid and conventional analyses, for example, mass spectrometry, ultra-performance liquid chromatography (UPLC), glycan analysis with rapid 2-aminobenzamide (2-AB) labeling and normal-phase UPLC, and capillary electrophoresis (CE) techniques such as imaged CE (iCE) and the CE-sodium dodecyl sulfate (CE-SDS) method. “Our objective,” declares Dr. Adams, “is same-day quality attribute analysis for understanding what’s happening in a bioreactor while designing the upstream process.”

    Note that all the aforementioned techniques are standard analysis methods. The novelty is the context in which Fujifilm Diosynth uses them. Another distinction is the company’s high-throughput approach. The company uses liquid-handling workstations with pre-loaded tips for culture purification over protein A. The 30–60-minute preparation provides purified, active, concentrated antibody that may be analyzed in a number of ways. “We are able to analyze multiple ambr™ minireactor or 2 L bioreactor samples in hours versus days,” asserts Dr. Adams.

    When it is applied to cell-line development, the rapid analysis philosophy holds that the same methods should be used from early development through GMP manufacturing. In practice, this is easier with antibodies because molecules of this class lend themselves to affinity purification and rapid method optimization through design of experiment (DOE), potentially beginning with transfectant pool material.

    “Hopefully, we can have a method that we don’t have to change for the lifetime of the program,” Dr. Adams says. “It certainly helps to be able to trace data back through clinical phases and not have to worry about chromatographic profile and column changes. This has been very successful in several programs using the newer techniques, where the development phase is assisted by the speed by which you can run each method.”

    The next challenge is to transfer this methodology to products expressed in microbial fermentation, which Dr. Adams refers to as the “next generation” of this approach to analytics.

  • Improving Solubility

    Escherichia coli became the workhorse of recombinant protein expression because of its simple genetics, ease of culturing, scalability, rapid expression, and prodigious productivity. Negatives include a lack of eukaryotic post-translational machinery, codon usage bias, and difficulty with high-molecular-weight proteins.

    Pros and cons must be weighed in terms of the target protein’s intended use. Quality and purity requirements for research-only proteins vary significantly, and may be worlds apart from therapeutic proteins. “The end application dictates to a large degree the choice of expression host, purity requirements, how you design the construct, and which tags to use,” says Keshav Vasanthavada, marketing specialist at GenScript.

    A disadvantage in E. coli on par with low expression is insoluble expression, which results in aggregates (inclusion bodies). Researchers can deal with this phenomenon at the process level or molecular level. But before they embark on an improvement project, they should, Vasanthavada advises, check the literature to see if other researchers have produced the target protein in adequate yield and at acceptable quality. If so, it would be worthwhile to look at the other researchers’ methods and see if they can be reproduced.

    Process-level strategies, which do not require target reengineering, include changing expression conditions, in vitro protein refolding, switching E. coli strains, adjusting media and buffers, or incorporating chaperone co-expression. Molecular-level approaches involve eliminating undesirable elements through truncations or mutations.

    “The easiest approach is adoption of a fusion partner-based strategy,” Vasanthavada tells GEN. “It involves the use of a solubilizing partner upstream of the target protein to enhance target protein solubility.”

    While this approach is generally beneficial, it has its drawbacks. For example, while a fusion partner will solubilize the target protein, there is no guarantee that the target protein will remain in solution once the tag is cleaved off. “Sometimes, you cannot ‘cleave off’ the fusion partner. The proteolytic enzyme won’t reach the cleavage site because of interference from itself,” Vasanthavada explains. “On other occasions, your fusion partner will start sticking to your target protein post-cleavage.”

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