The 12 part system to optimize your process and reduce or eliminate serum usage or dependence on proprietary serum replacement products for any cell type.

A new service by Van Heron Labs

VHL is putting its process optimization knowledge to work towards addressing key challenges in bio-manufacturing and cell and tissue culture through a new service aimed at addressing serum usage, from an entirely new angle.

[ Serum is an animal or human product that’s not chemically defined, leading to slight variations in batches or from lot to lot. It’s also expensive and lacks scalability. Reducing serum usage or going serum-free alleviates ethical and quality concerns, with a benefit to the bottom line. ]

From working with diverse partners across bio-pharma, precision fermentation, and alternative protein to optimize their bioprocesses using the Van Heron Lab core platform which uses multi-omics data to optimize cell feed and media formulations by beneficially reprogramming cellular metabolism, the Van Heron Labs team has become keenly aware of the challenges posed by using serum and the difficulties of eliminating it.

The VHL core platform uses bioinformatics analysis to determine the nutrient substrates cells need for optimal metabolism, the primary effect is improving yields, and a secondary benefit for those working with cell lines is serum reduction. VHL optimizes basal media by providing the small molecule (macro and micronutrient) profiles required by a particular cell type, however, serum is composed of a complex mixture of both large and small molecules, like proteins. Thus, while the Van Heron Labs’ core technology can do much to eliminate serum on its own (up to 70% in some cases) it’s not a complete solution and not the primary purpose of the technology.

“I felt a bit helpless watching our partners struggle to eliminate serum knowing that our platform could only do so much, and at the same time knowing exactly what they needed to do.

I had a folder on my laptop called “serum elimination” with an outline of all the actions needed to eliminate serum.

In speaking with a colleague, it occurred to me that instead of leaving that folder virtually unused, I should allow others to access that knowledge.”

-Dr. Rebecca Vaught, Founder, and C.E.O.

“The Van Heron Labs mission is ultimately to use our platform and know-how to further catalyze the bio-economy and help people and the planet, we feel that deploying Ser-X advances that mission.”

-Alec Santiago, Co-founding partner

Eliminating serum is particularly important for cell-based proteins, but it’s also important for academic research, traditional biotech, and therapeutics testing among other endeavors. Using something like 10% fetal calf serum for cells used to assay human conditions such as cancer or COVID- 19 creates a micro-environment unrepresentative of target in-vivo physiological conditions of interest. For instance, cancer cell metabolism is extremely heterogeneous (across subjects and locations within tumors), but with the addition of fetal calf serum, glucose metabolism will become altered, regardless of the native cellular conditions, confounding assays, or therapeutics testing (a similar circumstance is also potentially problematic for COVID studies given the insulin susceptibility of ACE-2). Further, fetal calf serum puts cells into an “embryonic state” which may be an issue for aging-related studies. Finally, most human serums are derived from male donors, thus for any work on female cells or tissues (where gene expression can differ by up to 40%!), there is a risk of introduction of sex-specific effects.

Ser-X is a 12-part series of techniques, recipes for media supplements, infrastructure recommendations, and a penultimate implementation pipeline that will enable the reduction or elimination of serum from any type of cell system. Ser-X can be tailored to specific biological needs or process demands. The Van Heron Labs Ser-X team will also support their partners through implementation and scale-up.

Van Heron Labs also cautions, however, that while Ser-X can work for any cell type, it’s not an appropriate strategy for every company.

“This is not a magic wand solution, there’s a reason why many researchers and companies are still using serum, eliminating it is hard, companies will have to put resources towards implementation of the strategies and make significant investments in seeing this through. If that’s not possible, then they’ll be better off using off-the-shelf serum replacements.”

-Dr. Rebecca Vaught, Founder, and C.E.O.

Even given this, Van Heron Labs feels confident that those who do take the necessary steps will reap the rewards.