FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Researchers at the University of Arkansas and two partner institutions received a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop purification membranes for future large-scale manufacturing of viral vectors and virus-like particles.

According to a press release from the university, successful development of commercial-grade purification membranes will “improve human health by increasing access to new treatments for genetic and chronic diseases, especially for middle- and low-income people.”

Virus vectors are the tools by which scientists deliver harmless, modified versions of viruses to human cells. As the functional genetic material within vaccines, they perform the critical function of instructing cells to recognize and fight diseases, including viruses.

“Development of cost-effective, large-scale biomanufacturing for the purification of viral vectors and virus-like particles is a major challenge,” said Xianghong Qian, professor of biomedical engineering at UA and principal investigator for the project. The rush to develop a vaccine for coronavirus confirmed this challenge, according to the UA release.

Manufacturers struggled to produce membrane filters to purify viral vectors and virus-like particles, primarily because of capacity and fouling of membranes, which caused delays in vaccine production. Robust membrane performance under a range of operating conditions also led to production delays.

For this project, researchers led by Qian will create a “scalable, downstream manufacturing platform for purification that will replace the standard processes of centrifugation and resin-based chromatography,” both of which are difficult to scale up in manufacturing. The project will require feedstock production of two common viral vectors for gene therapy, virus-like particles for vaccine applications and advanced microfiltration for bioreactor harvesting.

The researchers will design, fabricate and characterize high-capacity membranes and will develop membrane chromatography for separating full and empty viral capsids. They will use state-of-the-art bioanalytical methods for detection and quantification and will develop a readiness and acceptance study to help drive the technology toward commercial production.

The Arkansas researchers — co-principal investigators Bob Beitle, professor of chemical engineering; Ranil Wickramasinghe, Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering; and several others, in addition to Qian — will collaborate with researchers at the University of Kentucky and Clemson University.