ECU students work to produce new treatments with bioprocess engineering.

GREENVILLE — Walk into a certain lab in one building on the East Carolina University campus and you’ll spot a giant glass beaker sitting on a table. Tubes connect the beaker to a multitude of other beakers and pumps. The yellow liquid inside is bubbling furiously.

In a way, this story is a lot like the enzymes bubbling in the mixture. There’s a small concentration, with a lot of potential for change. 

“In the end, everything we are doing will help people,” explains Stephanie Nguyen, a senior engineering major at East Carolina University. “What we are trying to do is produce new treatments for diseases that currently don’t have treatments. We’re also trying to prevent drug shortages.” 

This is the bioprocess engineering concentration at East Carolina University. 

Bioprocess engineering is the creation of biological products using live organisms and enzymes, rather than organic and inorganic chemicals. Insulin is one example of a bioprocess-engineered product. Vaccines and ethanol are two other examples.

Traditional aspirin, on the other hand, is an example of a product made using chemical engineering, where molecules are manipulated in the lab to produce a product. 

Because some products just can’t be made using traditional chemical engineering, bioprocess engineers utilize the natural molecular machinery of cells or enzymes and then design and develop the equipment and the processes to create products. Think microscopic bioreactors. 

“Essentially we are using the resources of the cell—its molecular machinery—to produce these products for us,” says Loren Limberis, Ph.D., an associate professor of engineering at East Carolina University. “The manufacture of biotherapeutics such as insulin is a perfect use for bioprocess engineering because those medicines can’t be ingested, they would be broken down in the digestive tract. They need to be injected." 

East Carolina University’s bioprocess engineering program is small, but it is not unique as many of North Carolina’s Universities and Community Colleges offer programs that feature bioprocess engineering. And for good reason. 

More than 600 biotech companies call North Carolina home. Those firms employ more 61,000 workers. It’s the third highest biotech concentration in the nation. 

The students in ECU’s bioprocess engineering program are working on more than just a typical classroom project. They’re teaming up with the Brody School of medicine at ECU to develop a manufacturing process for a new vaccine. There’s also a multi-year contract with a local biomedical device company to develop a new compound that can be used in several medicines. 

“We’ve had to do a lot of basic research before we get to the lab, which is why it’s taken so long in the preliminary stages,” says Amanda Grandy, who is also a senior in the program. “We have to come with all the steps, such as how we are going to make it, how will we grow it, how are we going to get the protein, how are we going to inject it into people, how long will it last, will it last—all of those kinds of questions need to be answered.” 

Faculty members admit it is a rigorous program. But they add that the out-of-the-box-minded students bring leads to discoveries. 

“They come in saying I don’t know what I know, I don’t know what I need to know, and I’m going to find out all the info I need to solve the problem,” says Professor Limberis, who adds that the students work in teams to help each other solve challenges. 

“Now, do they run into bumps? Absolutely. But they also see this as an opportunity to utilize all of the information and experience they’ve had in the program to create something that is really needed.“ 

In fact, one of those bumps was hit recently—and it was a big one. 

“We were all frustrated because we were pretty close to hitting a big milestone until last week, when we found out that one of our ingredients that we need is no longer being made,” says John Matos, a senior, shaking his head as he recalls the students’ reaction when they heard the news. “So we’re going to have to somewhat redesign our formula or force an ingredient to work properly. We’re really uncertain what to do but we will figure it out.” 

But it was a valuable lesson. 

“This entire project is interesting and stressful at the same time, because we are working with real world companies, not school work,“ adds Matos. “That’s very different and taxing because we have to meet their deadlines and expectations. But still, it’s fun. This is what we to school for, so we enjoy it.”

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