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New Process Simplifies Protein Production for Drug Companies

Ellen Brune (University of Arkansas)

Ellen Brune (University of Arkansas)

A chemical engineer at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville developed a new method for producing high quality proteins used in drugs for treating an assortment of disorders. Doctoral candidate Ellen Brune (pictured right) also founded a company, Boston Mountain Biotech, to commercialize the technology.

Current industry methods for protein manufacturing require separating out the background contamination to reach the proteins that serve as the drug targets. Pharmaceutical companies need to remove these contaminants to achieve Food and Drug Administration approval; FDA requires purity of at least 99 percent. Brune says drug companies spend some $8 billion a year cleaning up these contaminants during production.

Brune and colleagues in Arkansas’s chemical engineering department created genetically engineered strains of the bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) that removed sections of their DNA causing the contamination, and thus express minimized sets of contaminant proteins. While E. coli is commonly known as a disease-causing pathogen, it is also used as a utility microbe in lab research.

These customized cell lines, code-named Lotus, are designed to work with specific pharmaceutical separation techniques and thus are made for manufacturing. The Lotus cell lines, says Brune, simplify the purification process on the front end of protein pharmaceutical production, and look nothing like current cell lines used for protein production.

Pharmaceutical companies “have to spend too much time and money getting rid of stuff that doesn’t work to get to the stuff that does,” says Brune. “Our work addresses this problem. Our cell lines reduce the garbage, so to speak, before the manufacturing process begins.”

Brune took a class in entrepreneurship at the Arkansas business school and later started Boston Mountain Biotech LLC, a biotechnology company, to commercialize the process, and where Brune is now the company’s chief scientist. A patent has been filed on the process, and Brune took part in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program that provides $50,000 in funding as well as training for science-based start-up founders.

Boston Mountain Biotech has also won a total of $50,000 from business plan competitions. The company is seeking additional investors and is currently working with two manufacturers on pilot testing.

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