Transient recombinant protein expression in mammalian cells: the role of mRNA level and stability

Transient gene expression (TGE) is a rapid method for generating recombinant proteins in mammalian cells, but the volumetric productivities for secreted proteins in transiently transfected CHO DG44 cells are typically more than an order of magnitude lower than the yields achieved with recombinant CHO-derived cell lines. The goals of the thesis are to identify the limitations to higher TGE yields in CHO DG44 cells and to find possible solutions to overcome the problems. Initially an attempt was made to enhance TGE production by increasing the amount of transfected plasmid DNA. However, this approach did not result in increased recombinant protein levels; on the contrary, transfection with an excess of plasmid DNA (> 1.25 μg/ml) had a negative impact on transgene mRNA levels and protein production. Moreover, it was also observed that recombinant protein yield was strongly dependent on the mRNA level. Therefore, three strategies aimed at increasing the amount of transgene mRNA were investigated. For the first approach, transfected cells were exposed to hypothermic conditions during the production phase. It was already known that lower temperatures increase protein production several fold in recombinant CHO DG44-derived cell lines. The second strategy involved the treatment of transfected cells with valproic acid, a histone deacetylase inhibitor that reduces the effects of gene silencing. The third approach aimed to increase transgene mRNA levels by overexpressing transcription factors and growth factors. With the first two strategies recombinant antibody yields of 60-80 mg/L were achieved whereas the untreated control transfections produced only 5-10 mg/L. Combination of the two strategies led to the production of 90 mg/L of antibody. Moreover, in the treated cultures, the steady-state level of transgene mRNA was 3-5 times higher than in the untreated cultures and remained stable up to 6 days post-transfection. Using the third approach, the increase in recombinant protein production was moderate and transgene mRNA amounts were only 2-fold higher in treated samples compared to the control. When specific proteins such as c-fos, c-jun, NF-kB, and acidic fibroblast growth factor (aFGF) were overexpressed the recombinant antibody production was 20 mg/L compared to 5 mg/L for the control transfection. Overexpression of either a transcription factor or a growth factor in combination with treatment with valproic acid allowed the recombinant protein yield to reach 90 mg/L. However, the benefit of the overexpressed factors was minimal compared to the effect of valproic acid alone. In conclusion, it was demonstrated that the level and stability of transgene mRNA are important factors for increasing volumetric yields in transiently transfected CHO DG44 cells. Furthermore, three approaches aimed to increase mRNA amounts were tested. Exposure to hypothermic conditions and treatment with valproic acid were the two best strategies tested. Both are simple, cost-effective, and scalable making transient gene expression in CHO DG44 cells a feasible alternative for rapid production of gram amounts of recombinant protein.

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