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KGI’s Bioprocessing Team Trains Citrus College Biotech Faculty in the Use of Bioreactors

Members of Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)’s bioprocessing program recently collaborated with the biotechnology program at Citrus College in Glendora, training faculty in the use of bioreactors. The equipment is employed in industry for the large-scale growth of genetically-engineered cells to produce biologics.

KGI’s Dr. Sue Behrens, the George B. and Joy Rathmann Professor in Bioprocessing and Director of the Amgen Bioprocessing Center, helped facilitate the collaboration. At the same time, KGI Doctor of Philosophy in Applied Life Sciences (PhD) student Alexander Burns provided the hands-on training.

Those receiving the training were Dr. Eleanor Tsark and Dr. Katherine Harker—faculty co-leads for the Citrus College Biotechnology Program and Dr. Katherine Marsh, a Biological Sciences Instructor at Compton College. Citrus College financed the training through the Strong Workforce Program, a funding stream available to community colleges for their Career Technical Education programs.

“I found out about KGI several years ago because I had a student who participated in the Bioprocessing Summer Undergraduate Internship Training and Education program, and then I found out they had a bioprocessing program,” Tsark said. “I kept that in mind in terms of professional development, and when we received the funding, I reached out to Sue. She immediately emailed me back and was very on-board with this opportunity to collaborate.”

Behrens connected Tsark with Burns, PhD ’25. Burns, who completed KGI’s Master of Engineering in Biopharmaceutical Processing program in 2021, specializes in upstream operations and process development for biologics. He is experienced in the use of bioreactors, specifically microbial fermentation.

Burns provided Citrus and Compton Colleges’ biotech faculty with professional training on how to use their bioreactors so they could then pass that knowledge on to their students for their Biomanufacturing course, which both Citrus and Compton College offer.

The purpose of the Biomanufacturing course is to grow microbial cells to sufficient quantities, serving as a vehicle to illustrate upstream and downstream processes using a biologic model. Bioreactors offer a controlled environment, making them ideal for lab use.

“You can use microbial or mammalian cells, and the reason they are using microbial cells—and why they’re ideal in industry—is that microbial cells like e coli have a very simple genome,” Burns said. “It’s been very well studied over many decades and is relatively easy to manipulate genetically. Also, microbial cells are much easier to grow, whereas mammalian cells require more care.”

He instructed the faculty in all operational aspects of a bioreactor campaign—as it is called in industry—from assembly to operation to clean up.

“After bioreactor assembly and sterilization, you carry out your fermentation run,” Burns said. “Then you do a harvest of the microbial cells, followed by the cleanup or the turnaround. So it is a long and complex process. They were pretty much able to escape reading the manual.”

For Tsark, though, the training went far beyond technical skills.

“Alex was a great fit for our needs, which was large-scale fermentation,” Tsark said. “He knew exactly what we needed to know to make the training well-rounded. I really appreciate how he took the effort to go in-depth so we understood the operation better and what’s going on in the reactor.”

The training occurred the last week of January, and the Biomanufacturing class for Citrus College starts February 23. It was challenging to learn such a large amount of information in a short time. However, the training made the process much more efficient than it would have been if they had tried to learn everything independently.

“The training definitely streamlined the process of getting our bioreactors up and running—which they are now,” Tsark said. “So we are moving in the right direction.”

In fact, the timing may have even made the training more effective in that they can apply their new skills immediately.

“We started accessing that information right away and applying it to our own system with my colleague (Kathy Harker), who’s going to be teaching that course,” Tsark said. “And it’s working out really well.”

Though Burns was the one conducting the training, he acknowledges that the training has been a valuable learning experience for him as well.

“I’m very grateful to have gotten to know Eleanor, and I appreciate Sue very much for connecting me to her,” Burns said. “I hope KGI and Citrus College can build stronger connections moving forward.”

Tsark shares his sentiments.

“I’m so happy to have made this connection with Alex,” Tsark said. “I feel like this connection and friendship will continue to evolve.”

Behrens feels that collaborations of this nature benefit the biopharmaceutical industry.

“We are excited to begin building collaborations with regional community colleges.”

“The biomanufacturing industry demand for talented employees continues to outpace supply. We look forward to working together to ensure continued supply of important biopharmaceutical products for treatment and prevention of cancer, COVID-19, and many other diseases,” Behrens said.