Cocoon farm beeld: Lonza
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The name Lonza comes from the river in Switzerland near where the company was originally founded more than a hundred years ago, As such, it has nothing to do with the biomedical products and services that Lonza provides.

Lonza is active around the world and has around 15,000 employees with branches in the Netherlands as well. Such as the one on the Brightlands
Chemelot Campus
in Geleen. where approximately 250 people work there. This company division started as a start-up in Maastricht in 2005 and developed a production facility for stem cell and gene therapy to combat diseases. It became part of Lonza in 2018.

The reason that Lonza is on the Chemelot campus is due to its strategic location. This is very convenient for having access to all kinds of industry-related services that are already available there, says Willem Dullaers. He is the senior manager of quality control at Lonza in Geleen. “Security is well organized, and we use a number of other facilities so that as a company you don’t need to arrange these yourself.”

Culture of living cells against cancer

The interesting thing about the Lonza production facility in Geleen is that the company isolates living cells and is even able to manipulate them on behalf of pharmaceutical groups. These companies then supply them to hospitals for the treatment of patients, primarily those suffering from forms of cancer. So what does Lonza do exactly and what does it ultimately deliver to those hospitals? – is the question for Dullaers. This is not so easy to explain.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Schermafbeelding-2020-10-29-om-14.30.23.png
This is how Lonza’s technicians are now working in their cleanroom Photo: Lonza

“We work in cleanrooms at Lonza’s premises in Geleen with the aim of selecting body cells from a sample of the patient taken in the hospital via a blood transfusion or bone marrow puncture.” For example, body cells that are selected have the ability to fight cancer cells by virtue of their specific properties. If these cells are selected and reproduce in number after being cultured, it can be useful to add DNA to them so that they are able to attack the cancer cells even more effectively. “Modification is done using a piece of deactivated virus that is used as a vector to introduce DNA into the selected cells.”

Once that process is completed, the number of cells, which is usually very small, is cultivated to a larger quantity so that after various quality checks and the preparation for transport (cooled or frozen) are carried out, the cells are introduced into the patient. It is very common that patients are successfully treated afterward, says Dullaers. He refers to a report that made the world news last year. An Italian two-year-old boy with a rare immune disease (HLH) who was initially given up by doctors, Alex Montresor, was cured after stem cell therapy.

Working in a hermetically sealed suit

About 30 people are currently working on the production process for cell and gene therapy to treat people, Dullaers adds. The tasks that the biomedical doctors have to perform take time and require careful attention. They have to enter the cleanroom themselves to put the cells through the process to be transformed into stem cell therapies. They have to wear protective, hermetically sealed suits under the strictest safety conditions. That is to safeguard their own safety but also to prevent any potential contamination of the cells. Patients for whom this therapy is intended are often severely debilitated. They are not allowed to get sick as a result of a bacterium or particulate matter that has entered the cultured cells. A check always takes place to make sure that the product is completely clean. If this is not the case, it must be remade as a last resort.”

At the moment, Lonza is working on a method to fully automate the culture process of the cells in the cleanroom. A pilot is currently underway at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel. It has a test setup with a so-called ‘cocoon’. The cocoon looks like an egg-shaped module of white plastic that is about one meter long. Inside the egg there is a small factory that automates all operations, from cell selection to DNA insertion and preparation for transport and administration.

Over the coming years, this innovative culture method for cell and gene therapy must be approved through clinical trials and by medicinal regulatory agencies such as the U.S. FDA and the European EMA. Only then can this robotized method be applied on a large scale.

Room full of tiny factories for individual stem cell therapy

“I hope it will be achievable within five to ten years,” says Dullaers. That will change a lot in terms of affordability and supply options for cell and gene therapy. Because it is such a cumbersome treatment, the costs are high right now. The production also takes a lot of time. “Depending on the complexity of the process, the duration varies from a few days to sometimes more than two months,” Dullaers notes.

If the entire process can be robotized, fewer people will be needed to do the work. “I think that whereas we now work with 150 people, you will be able to do it with 15. However, you will need a different set of employees: People with a software background and an understanding of the machinery.”

You can simultaneously fill a room with dozens of cocoons where cell therapies are made. That means that productivity is bound to skyrocket. Consequently, it will also be possible to make more medication based on the cells of individual patients, which will also be cheaper since less staff is needed. “The chance of making mistakes is smaller than with work that involves human hands,” Dullaers points out.

Another alternative is for hospital laboratories to make the gene and cell therapies themselves. “It is conceivable that they would like to have a cocoon in their own hospital that they can use to treat patients.”

You can also read the earlier articles in this series here:

‘The Chinese and Americans are knocking on the Dutch town of Geleen’s door to test innovative chem tech’

Xilloc: ‘Requests from dozens of hospitals worldwide for 3D-printed implants’

Dutch Arlanxeo: ‘85% less CO2 emissions thanks to rubber from sugar cane’

Niaga: ‘100% recyclable mattresses, furniture and carpets have the future’