Freeze-drying Lab Is the First of Its Kind on the East Coast
By Edwin L. Aguirre
UMass Lowell has opened a state-of-the-art lyophilization facility that will help drive innovation and discovery in biopharmaceutical manufacturing in New England and beyond.
Called the Lyophilization Research Bay, or LyoBay, the new lab is the first pilot-scale facility on the East Coast that is located in a clean-room environment and is accessible to outside users. The LyoBay is expected to pave the way for more efficient industrial processes, better manufacturing practices and higher-quality life-saving products such as vaccines, biologics and other injectable therapeutic drugs.
Lyophilization – also known as cryodessication or freeze-drying – is a process that removes water from sensitive, perishable materials (in this case, biopharmaceuticals) to make them more stable and extend their shelf life, as well as making the materials easier to store, transport and use.
Lyophilization works by freezing the material, then reducing the air pressure and adding low heat to allow the frozen water in the material to sublimate (change directly from ice to vapor without melting). This is in contrast to conventional dehydration, which uses high heat to evaporate the water.
“Many biopharmaceutical companies don’t have their own pilot-scale freeze-drying facility,” says Chemical Engineering Prof. Seongkyu Yoon, who will lead the research efforts for the university. “The LyoBay will create a lot of collaboration with pharma companies as they go from product R&D to commercial manufacturing. They will come to UMass Lowell to use our facility, which will create research partnership opportunities for our faculty and students.”
Training the Future Workforce
A NIIMBL-funded project team – led by Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI) of Andover and including UMass Lowell, the University of Connecticut, Purdue University, Merck and Genentech – was instrumental in establishing the LyoBay and will be the first user of the facility.
“This is an example of a great partnership between academia, industry and government,” says Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and economic development. “This is so important in expanding biomanufacturing here in Massachusetts.”
The centerpiece of the LyoBay is the 7,000-pound SP Scientific LyoConstellation S20, a high-capacity freeze-dryer with a total shelf area of nearly 21 square feet inside its airtight, stainless steel chamber. The unit’s refrigeration and vacuum system can bring the chamber’s shelf temperature down to minus 60 degrees Celsius (minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit) and its system pressure to as low as 15 millitorr, about two hundred-thousandths of the atmospheric pressure at sea level.
The LyoBay will serve as a research test bed for preclinical process monitoring, development and scale-up, as well as for testing new process analytical technologies. It will also provide training to support the regional and national biotech industries, according to Yoon.
“We will prepare the future workforce in the field by developing hands-on, freeze-drying training programs using the LyoBay,” he adds.
A Rare Resource
“We’re so pleased that this incredible resource will be shared with startups, small businesses and large biotech companies,” Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said at the LyoBay’s official opening. “It is a new, important addition to UMass Lowell’s innovation ecosystem.”
Other speakers at the event included Chen; Travis McCready, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center; David Green, president and CEO of PSI; John Erickson, senior fellow at NIIMBL; Nicholas Warne, Pfizer’s vice president of pharmaceutical research and development; and Indu Javeri, president and CEO of CuriRx.
Erickson said that while the goal of lyophilization is to make medicine stable, the lack of sensors and computer models has hindered the researchers’ understanding of industrial lyophilization, resulting in inefficient, suboptimal processes.
“NIIMBL has funded projects to improve our understanding of new sensors and models, but they need to be tested in a full-size lyophilizer. But the problem is that industrial lyophilizers are busy making medicine – you can’t just go in and do whatever you like,” said Erickson. “This is where the LyoBay comes in. It is a very rare resource that will allow us to test these innovations and future innovations in a realistic setting.”
“The LyoBay will lead to new development sensors, freeze-drying models and processes and workforce training to enable us to continue providing the newest biopharmaceutical treatments to patients worldwide,” said Green. “It will allow R&D experimentation to progress at a faster rate and support collaborative studies with both academia and users. This will lead to improved results and better understanding of the scale processes, resulting in higher product quality for all of us.”