A bioreactor is a vessel, vat, or apparatus used to grow organisms like bacteria and yeast. They provide a controlled environment to perpetuate conditions ideal for growing the desired organic materials. They are called reactors because they combine materials or create conditions where biological materials change and grow by interacting with one another and/or the conditions within the reactor. Enzymes, plant and animal cells, and microorganisms find optimal environmental conditions within bioreactors to produce the desired output of organic material.
The pharmaceutical industry uses bioreactors to create medicines, vaccines, and even produce quantities of antibodies. The energy industry uses them to produce ethanol from corn. Innovations in bioreactor technology increasingly use these devices to grow animal and even human cells. The future includes greater uses for bioreactors in medical treatment.
Bioreactors for Pharmaceutical Research
Advances in the science of tissue regeneration mean that researchers can create cells and tissues outside the body and use those cells to test new drugs to see how they affect cell metabolism and if they exhibit toxicity toward the cells. This can speed the development of new medicines and drug treatments by improving the predictive value of testing in drug development.
Bioreactors can produce quantities of monoclonal antibodies used for treating cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and other diseases. Researchers are racing to find an antibody treatment for COVID-19 that could improve outcomes for people who get sick with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The pinnacle of achievement using bioreactors in medical treatment is regenerating human tissue. Growing a supply of stem cells is an example. However, using the stem cells to generate human cartilage or organ tissue is an exceptionally complex undertaking. Multi-cell tissue structures require structural support or “scaffolding” to grow on. When the bioreactor is “seeded” with cells, that scaffolding guides the growth of the cells into the shape and form required. Complicating the structure are “pore” requirements that create the right kind and number of spaces between cells and produce tissue that mimics the same type of tissue found within the human body.
The type of bioreactor used for tissue regeneration will be substantially different than systems that stir or agitate materials to maintain required environmental conditions to grow quantities of bacteria or yeast. Researchers and engineers in life science device design hope one day to create bioreactors and associated scaffolding that can grow heart and other muscle tissue.
Regenerating tissue for entire human organs is likely far in the future. But bioreactor technology could be used to generate tissue for vascular grafts in patients requiring coronary bypass surgery. Bioreactors show promise as tools to develop new medical treatments and even repair or replace human tissue within the body with tissue grown outside of it.