11 JUN 2021
From recombinant proteins, vaccines and plasma components to cell and gene therapies, biotherapeutics are some of the most innovative, life-saving medicines. Christina Carbrello talks to us about her career journey and her vital work behind the scenes to ensure these products are safe for patients.
What drew you to your field?
I realized as an undergrad I really liked the research aspect of science — trying to puzzle out a problem. I decided to pursue chemical engineering, and I was drawn to the biological applications, where you can really see how you're making an impact on people's lives. Balancing that with my strengths in engineering, I did my graduate work in protein separations. Looking at careers, I wanted to do something in product design. Membranes were completely new for me. But as a young scientist starting out my career, I was keen to learn something new, and I've worked in membranes ever since.
Why is virus filtration important?
It’s critical to life science, and for bioprocessing in particular. You won't find a process for manufacturing a monoclonal antibody, for example, that doesn't have a virus filtration step in it. You wouldn’t be able to make those sorts of medicinal products without filters. Virus safety is something regulators are very strict on — making sure the right measures are in place, so the biopharmaceuticals are safe for patients.
What challenges do you face and how do you overcome them?
There's a lot we know about filtration, but it's a complex process. It's not as simple as having a particle this size and a pore that size, so the particle can’t get through. There are things like deformability, and how particles interact with the membrane surface. There’s a lot of experimentation involved. You need to try things, learn from them, collect data and dig into the next level of information to get to the underlying phenomena driving performance, which is one of the things that I really enjoy. I try to visit the lab whenever there’s an important experiment going on to see things as they're happening. Inevitably when you see it in person, a light bulb goes off and you understand things differently.
What motivates you?
I've had the privilege of working with really smart, motivated people. It’s great when you’re facing a hard problem and you can get a team of people together who all bring their different expertise and are willing to really dig in. And then you see all the pieces fall into place and you either understand something, or solve something, or overcome a challenge — that's the most rewarding part. I could sit and work on problems all day by myself, but when you come together and accomplish something bigger than any one individual could, that’s immensely rewarding.
What’s your biggest career highlight?
I had the opportunity to work on a problem that had been puzzling the industry for years. When filtering emulsions or liposomes, so streams containing oily particles, filters that were otherwise very robust would let bacteria through. I spent a lot of effort trying to understand the mechanisms driving that phenomenon. I certainly can’t take all the credit as everything at this level is teamwork. We were able to develop a good understanding of what was going on, which then put us in a good position to think about how to solve it. I still get asked to consult on that same issue today. Now, we know enough to provide good guidance on how to design a filtration process to avoid bacteria passage in these streams.
How do you hope to make an impact in the future?
I think of myself as more of a behind-the-scenes person, supporting the people who are making biotherapeutics that will have a great impact on people's lives. These are treatments for cancer and all sorts of devastating diseases. Our role might not be as visible, but that doesn't make it any less important. Although the patients may never know it, these treatments wouldn't be possible without that great virus filter!
Personally, I’d like to continue to stay close to the science. That's really important to me. But I also love being able to mentor and coach — to help develop my team so we can come together to solve problems. One of the most fun parts of my job is working with students who have all these great, new ideas. They're up and coming, and I want to continue to stay plugged into that. A big part of science is being tuned in to what other people are doing and how they’re continuing to advance the field. That requires an open mind as we look to the future and look outside our own space to see what's being done in other fields that could make a big difference in bioprocessing.