Single-Use VS Stainless-Steel Bioreactors for Biopharma
Biopharmaceutical production equipment and technology are rapidly evolving to meet the industry’s ever-changing manufacturing, regulatory, and process engineering needs. These shifts include improvements in productivity, overall capacity, flexibility, and automation. Simultaneously, manufacturers keep in mind that facility complexity, start-up cost, maintenance expenses, and size must all be kept in balance to maintain competitive margins and pricing. Bioreactor technology is also changing to meet these new demands.
Initially, as with most equipment for biopharma manufacturing, bioreactors were stainless-steel. They were also typically large, holding sizable quantities of culture that produced only small amounts of product. Until recently, this was just the way things were done. Within the past decade, however, an industry-wide shift to single-use technology has caught up with bioreactors.
When choosing a bioreactor, most manufacturers take a variety of elements under consideration. What cell types are being cultured? Does the bioreactor need to produce mixed suspensions or adherent cell lines? Is the manufacturing facility large, with a limited number of products, or does it need to be smaller with more flexibility? How are novel therapeutic approaches that require special care for specific cell types represented by engineering? How much automation does the facility need now, and how much automation is anticipated in the future?
The answers to all of these questions will vary by application and product line, but the industry overall sees a shift (over 85% adoption) to single-use equipment. Specific advantages to making this change are the same as the advantages represented by single-use technology across the board:
- Increased product line integrity, decreased cross-product contamination risks.
- Reduced cleaning and down-time during changeovers
- Lower facility set-up cost and timeline to implementation
- Smaller manufacturing footprint
- Long-term cost savings with regards to maintenance, upkeep, and downtime
- Improved facility flexibility and adaptability
Rising implementation of single-use systems (sometimes referred to as SUS or SUB) can be seen as a function of improved overall manufacturing processes. More than a decade ago, the production of as little as 100kg/year of a monoclonal antibody, for example, might have necessitated the use of several large stainless-steel bioreactors and equivalently sized equipment. However, with innovations in these and similar processes, the same or higher quantities can be produced with much smaller single-use bioreactors at a lower cost and a quicker turn-around time.
The flexibility these single-use systems provide is also vital for the rapidly evolving nature of the industry. Rather than spending time and money setting up a system that may only work for a limited number of product runs, single-use equipment allows for constant re-imagining of the manufacturing process. This often leads to cost savings and an enhanced ability to keep up with changing regulatory demands.
Still, not all manufacturers are on board with switching to single-use systems. Main concerns around single-use bioreactors are derived from the same questions asked earlier, including:
- Issues with bag breakage and loss of product
- Leaching of material into the manufacturing stream
- Cost of disposable replacements
- Compatibility with process fluids
- Production volume
These factors are heavily determined by cell culture and product requirements. For example, single-use bioreactors are currently limited to use with mammalian cells. Stainless-steel systems also have much larger capacities. Multiple single-use systems can be organized to run in parallel and produce products at prices and quantities that are still competitive. However, some of the most extensive facilities using stainless-steel equipment, if engineered correctly, can make the same quantities of products at a lower cost.
Some specific types of biopharma manufacturing, like microbial bioprocessing, have also not converted to single-use systems. These processes typically require equipment that can accommodate higher temperatures, a more comprehensive range of pressures, and increased mixing capacity than what single-use equipment currently offers.
Legacy manufacturers still using stainless-steel equipment and seeing acceptable profit margins are not likely to shift to single-use technologies without a significant reason to do so. Some, however, are starting to introduce single-use bioreactors alongside their stainless-steel counterparts. This solution provides the best of both worlds for these manufacturers, enhancing flexibility and decreasing maintenance costs while maintaining the high production volumes they have relied on.
Studies comparing single-use and stainless-steel bioreactors provide strong evidence for this mentality. Across the board, the products created and those products’ quality are comparable between the two equipment types. Therefore, both systems can typically be used interchangeably on an as-needed basis without the requirement for intensive testing.
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