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High-density Cell/Virus Culturing Technology for Vaccine Production

Yu-Chong Tai
Anna L. Rosen Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering; Andrew and Peggy Cherng Medical Engineering Leadership Chair; Executive Officer for Medical Engineering

Professor Yu-Chong Tai and his group are developing a high-density cell/virus culturing technology to rapidly meet global demand for vaccines and overcomes existing bottlenecks. Conventionally, virus specimens (i.e., inactivated virus, attenuated virus, or a virus segment) for vaccination are produced using fertilized chicken eggs; one or two eggs are required per vaccine, and roughly two months are needed for each batch of eggs. Approximately 3.6 billion vaccine doses are needed to vaccinate 60% of the world's population to reach "community immunity." This helps explain why candidate vaccines may be in clinical trials within a few months, but will take more than a year to be widely available. Prof. Tai and his group are designing a better system to produce vaccine rapidly and at needed scale. Instead of eggs, cells are grown and then infected with viruses, and then the cells reproduce with the viral infection intact. This novel method of reproducing the virus is, in theory, much more efficient than using eggs, as long as large enough numbers of cells may be grown and reproduced. This is exactly what Prof. Tai's new technology can achieve. In 2018, the Tai lab demonstrated a new MEMS bioreactor device that could grow cells with 100- times higher cell density than state-of-the-art cell bioreactors. In 2019, the technology was transferred to the City of Hope (with collaborator, Dr. Yuman Fong) and a 1000-times higher cell density (~108 cells/cm3) was demonstrated there using only half the normal cell-culturing time. In early 2020, AAVs (adeno-associated viruses) were produced with equally high efficiency (compared to other bioreactors) using this technology. These numbers indicate the possibility of producing an enormous number of vaccines in as short as 6 months (rather than 12-18 months) and at 10% of the typical cost. To reach this goal, the engineering work required includes production of the MEMs devices and access to a qualified culturing facility with appropriate biosafety level controls. If granted resources, the Tai lab plans to demonstrate small-scale production of coronavirus for vaccine purposes using its technology.

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