Automating the Genomic Medicines of the Future

July 15, 2022

Contributed Commentary by Per Hammer, Cytiva 

July 15, 2022 | Historically, the heavily regulated biopharma industry has been slow to adopt new technologies. However, a shift toward automation is vital to ensure that next-generation solutions–such as cell and gene therapies–are produced at scale.  

Less than one in five senior pharma executives strongly believe that frontier technologies, such as artificial intelligence, are widely adopted to support automation and increase the speed of specific processes. With cell therapies approved by global regulatory bodies, it is time to accelerate smart technologies and cell and gene therapy manufacturing.  

Today’s cell therapy treatments are often made on a small-scale, include manual preparation steps, and are produced for a clinical trial setting. Researchers spend days processing cellular material, monitoring its growth during the expansion phase, and preparing for re-administration to the patient. This process is demonstrated in administering autologous treatments so that every patient receives a unique living drug.  

Though the current process is complex, it offers inspiring outcomes. For example, on April 1, 2022, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Kite Pharma’s Yescarta, a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy for adult patients with large B-cell lymphoma. This kind of cancer is usually resistant to initial treatment and relapses within one year. With FDA approval, Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel) is now the second-line treatment, a first for an autologous CAR T-cell therapy.  

Cell Therapy Enters Mainstream   

The exceptional results emerging from cell therapy clinical trials suggest we are entering a new phase of medical treatment–one where we can expect far more from our healthcare interventions than we ever imagined. Following the regulatory approval of autologous CAR T-cell therapies, the global cancer treatment landscape is changing, and the future is bright.  

The success of COVID-19 vaccines signaled the arrival of the genomic medicines age–one where we hope to see cell and gene therapies deliver long-term remission and even cures for patients with some of the most complex diseases. According to the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine 2021 Annual Report, nearly 60% of the ongoing regenerative medicine clinical trials studied prevalent diseases by the end of the calendar year. But to get these powerful treatments to those who need them, we must have an automated manufacturing infrastructure that can generate cell therapies to meet increased demand in the coming years.    

Saving Time Through Automation   

Time is of the utmost importance, as biopharma manufacturing involves patient cells that have limited viability. Manual approaches to cell therapy production are time-consuming, and tasks such as checking cells at regular intervals during expansion are laborious. Another time-draining factor is the workflow and cleaning routines involved in maintaining a safe lab environment.  

Automated solutions reduce or remove many of these challenges. After setting up a process, an operator can focus on other things while critical parameters such as temperature, pH level, gas transfer, and flow rates are monitored and controlled without human intervention.  

Reducing Risks for Better Results   

Manual cell processing solutions are complex, with many checkpoints across isolation, expansion, harvesting, and preservation stages. Unfortunately, each of these steps increases the risk potential. Despite the research team’s expertise, there is still a chance that materials could be inadvertently contaminated during numerous open stages.  

Additionally, limited process control can lead to difficulties in achieving high reproducibility. An automated modular solution minimizes these risks by bringing multiple steps within a closed, highly regulated, and controlled system.  

Improving Manufacturing Efficiency  

Changing a manufacturing process requires multiple manual routines and adjustments that must be checked and documented. However, documentation and protocols are less helpful when a customized process is used because they only apply to that specific setup.  

Standardization would effectively improve manufacturing efficiency. This approach would ensure that what is learned in one project can be referenced in future work, with data and documentation applicable across different technology applications. A modular chain of connected systems allows for process variation with instruments running in customized configurations. Additionally, having control of an individual instrument leads to the straightforward use of built-in software and sensors.  

Automated Manufacturing: The Way Forward for Cell and Gene Therapy  

By using automated manufacturing to minimize human interaction, time, and resource requirements, it is possible to increase production speed and lower some risks and costs associated with commercialization.  

The industry is ever-changing and adjusting its complex, yet exciting challenges will take some time. However, automation can create a significant advantage over competitors, providing the tools needed to produce cell therapies with the highest levels of safety and efficacy for patients.  

Per Hammer has two decades of experience in the biopharma industry, mainly supporting customers in academics through process development and manufacturing. Per joined Cytiva in 2001, taking on several distinct roles in the company. Most recently, he progressed from Product Manager Leader for the Bioprocess Automation and Digital Team to Senior Global Product Manager for the Cell & Gene Therapy Automation and Digital Solutions. He can be reached at