Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is Membrane Chromatography the Answer?

by Dr. Scott Rudge

Membrane chromatography gets a fair amount of hype.  It’s supposed to be faster, cheaper, it can be made disposable.  But is it the real answer to the “bottleneck” in downstream processing?  Was Allen Iverson the answer to the Nugget’s basketball dilemma?  I’m still skeptical.

The idea to add ligand functionality to membranes was not new at the time, but the idea really got some traction when it was endorsed by Ed Lightfoot in 1986.  Lightfoot’s paper pointed out that the hydrodynamic price paid for averaging of flow paths in a packed bed might not be worth it.  If thousands of parallel hollow fibers of identical length and diameter could be placed in a bundle, and the diameter of these fibers could be small enough to make the diffusion path length comparable to that in a bed of packed spheres, or smaller, then performance would be equivalent or superior at a fraction of the pressure drop.  This is undoubtedly true; there is no reason to have a random packing if flowpaths can be guaranteed to be exactly equivalent.  However, every single defect in this kind of system works against its success.  For example, hollow fibers that are slightly more hollow will have lower pressure drop, lower surface to volume ratio, lower binding capacity and higher proportional flow.  Slightly longer fibers will have slightly higher pressure drop, slightly higher binding capacity, carry proportionally less of the flow.  Length acts linearly on pressure drop and flow rate, but internal diameter acts to the fourth power, so minor variations in internal diameter would dominate performance of such systems. 
Indeed, according to Mark Etzel, these systems were abandoned as impractical for membrane chromatography based on conventional membrane formats that have been derivatized to add binding functionality.  As this technology has been developed, its application and scale up has begun to look very much like packed bed chromatography.  Here are some particulars:
1.       Development and scale up is based on membrane volume.   However, breakthrough curves are measured in 10’s, or even 70’s of equivalent volumes (see Etzel, 2007) instead of 2’s or 3’s as found in packed beds
2.       Binding capacities are less in membrane chromatography.  In a recent publication by Sartorious, the ligand density in Sartobind Q is listed as 50 mM, while for Sepharose Q-HP it is 140 mM.  In theory, the membrane format has a higher relative dynamic binding capacity, but this has yet to be demonstrated (see above)
3.       The void volume in membranes is surprisingly high, at 70%, compared to packed beds at 30%.  This is a reason for the low relative binding capacity.
4.       Disposable is all the rage, but there’s no evidence that, on a volume basis, derivatized membranes are cheaper than chromatography resins.  In fact, economic comparisons published by Gottshalk always have to make the assumption that the packed bed will de facto be loaded 100 times less efficiently than membranes, just to make the numbers work.  The cost per volume per binding event goes down dramatically during the first 10 reuses of chromatography resins.
It turns out that membrane chromatography has a niche, and that is for flow-through operations in which some trace contaminant, like the residual endotoxin or DNA in a product is removed.  This too can be done efficiently with column chromatography when operated in a high capacity (for the contaminant) mode.  But there is a mental block among chromatographers who want to operate adsorption steps in chromatographic, resolution preserving modes. This block has not yet affected membraners.  A small, high-capacity column operated at an equivalent flowrate to a membrane (volumes per bed or membrane volume) will work as well, and in my opinion more cheaply if regenerated.
These factors should be considered when choosing between membrane and packed bed chromatography.

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