Bioreactor promises rapid production of cells for cancer treatment

Washington State University researchers have developed a new bioreactor prototype that can rapidly grow white blood cells, promising an advance in the availability of immunotherapy as a cancer treatment.

Shelly Hanks, Washington State University

The bioreactor is able to manufacture the cells, called T cells, at 95 per cent of the maximum growth rate – about 30 per cent faster than current technologies – according to the report published in Biotechnology Progress.

Researchers used T cells from cattle in the testing, developed by co-author Bill Davis of WSU’s Veterinary College, and anticipate it will perform similarly on human cells.

In 2022, there were over 1,400 different therapies using T cells in development, with seven approved by the FDA for a variety of cancer treatments.

Use of the therapy, called chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR-T) is limited, however, because of the cost and time needed to grow T cells. Each infusion treatment for a cancer patient requires up to 250 million cells.

In a statement, study author Kitana Kaiphanliam, a postdoctoral researcher in WSU’s Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, said: “The manufacturing demand for this growing number of therapies is not being met, so there is a gap that needs to be filled in terms of biomanufacturing solutions… [the therapies] need to be upscaled, so they can be used by more people.”

The bioreactor uses centrifugal force to act on the growing cells while they are suspended as a dense cloud and continuously bathed by the inward flow of medium containing nutrients.

This prototype is a result of four decades of research on designing a centrifugal bioreactor to rapidly densify and expand cells, led by chemical engineering Professor Bernie Van Wie, also a co-author of the paper.

Kaiphanliam stated that, crucially, the new prototype is self-contained within a sterile cabinet, so it can act like a biosafety cabinet: “It can be used in circumstances where clean manufacturing facilities are not available or easily accessible, so it can democratise these cell-based therapies,” she said.

The researchers have said that they are working to improve the bioreactor, with the aim to add multiple chambers, and expect that they’ll eventually be able to produce enough cells in three days for three doses of a therapy.

They also plan to start testing with human T cells and have begun communicating with cancer researchers on beta testing at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

The work was predominately funded by a National Science Foundation Early-Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award, alongside the WSU Office of Commercialization’s Gap Fund, the Palouse Club Cougar Cage pitch competition and the Washington Research Foundation.