Small bioreactors

New pre-pilot plant will develop cell factories for industry

Monday 30 Jan 17


Bernhard Palsson
DTU Biosustain
+45 45 25 80 02


Bo Skjold Larsen
Chief Operating Officer
DTU Biosustain
+45 45 25 80 08


Anne Wärme Lykke
Communications Officer
DTU Biosustain
+45 21 12 37 70

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has granted almost 118 M DKK for the establishment of a fermentation plant at DTU Biosustain. The plant will make it possible to test so-called cell factories at greater scales and to optimize purification processes and thus accelerate the production of sustainable chemicals and medicine.

The last five years, The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, DTU Biosustain, has developed a broad range of tools which help researchers and the industry making so-called cell factories much more efficient.

A cell factory is an animal cell, yeast cell or bacterium, which has been designed genetically into producing pharmaceuticals or chemicals that are today, primarily, manufactured from oil. A new grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation will bring this research one big step closer to industrial use.

DTU Biosustain has been granted almost 118 M DKK to construct and operate a fermentation pre-pilot plant. With this facility, the researchers will be able to scale up from small tubes and flasks to 30 Litre tanks in order to predict how the biological workhorses – cell factories – will perform at large scale. Furthermore, the aim is to optimize the purification processes in order to more effectively isolate the product from the cell mass.

Denmark is dependent on cell factories

Today, up to 40 percent of Denmark's so-called Gross value added (GVA) is produced in fermentation processes, i.e. biochemical processes initiated by microorganisms. In addition, around 38,000 people are employed in the fermentation industry in Denmark.

"We have to make it easier to prepare cells for large scale production. The gain can potentially be billions of Kroner."
CEO of DTU Biosustain, Prof. Bernhard Palsson

Therefore, it pays to spend money on research that can improve fermentation processes, as this will benefit Danish business, explains CEO of DTU Biosustain Bernhard Palsson:

"If Denmark wants to continue to excel in producing sustainable chemicals, food, and pharmaceuticals, we must address these challenges in order to make the production more efficient. Today, many cell factories actually never make it to the industry, because scaling up is too difficult and costly. Therefore, we have to make it easier to prepare cells for large scale production. The gain can potentially be billions of Kroner. "

Will imitate large scale production

Cell factories can produce a broad spectrum of molecules, for instance chemicals for LED screens, important food nutrients and vitamins, or cancer drugs. Up to now, scientists at DTU Biosustain have only been able to test cell factory performance in small flasks and test tubes.

"Even if you have developed a cell line that is very productive in small scale, there is no guarantee that the cells will perform equally well in large industrial bioreactors. The reason is that you often need to feed the cells with less expensive and less well-defined feed in large scale. In addition, a large cell mass has to be aerated and oxygenated in a completely different way than in a flask,” says Bernhard Palsson. He continues:

"Therefore, we would like to be able to test the cells' performance in an industrial environment, so we can optimize the growth conditions and ensure that the cells produce as much bio-chemical as in small test tubes."

Temperature, pressure and feed are crucial

With this new plant, scientists will be able to test all the constraints important for the industry. In addition, the researchers will examine the key parameters and variables in order to optimize production. These constrains could be temperature, growth conditions, pressure, airing, and timing of feed – all of which must be tested under highly controlled conditions for researchers to find the best production settings.

"For us it is not a question of being able to produce in 100 or 200 Litre tanks like in industry, but instead to mature the fermentation technology and make it ready for industry," says Bernhard Palsson.

The grant will be spent partly on bioreactors, equipment for purification, and on setting up the plant at DTU Biosustain, partly on operational costs. The Center is now hiring a managing director, who will lead the pre-pilot plant. Further, the Center will hire a staff to run the research and development projects of the plant.