Technical refolding of proteins: Do we have freedom to operate?



Expression as inclusion bodies in Escherichia coli is a widely used method for the large-scale production of therapeutic proteins that do not require post-translational modifications. High expression yields and simple recovery steps of inclusion bodies from the host cells are attractive features industrially. However, the value of an inclusion body-based process is dominated by the solubilization and refolding technologies. Scale-invariant technologies that are economical and applicable for a wide range of proteins are requested by industry. The main challenge is to convert the denatured protein into its native conformation at high yields. Refolding competes with misfolding and aggregation. Thus, the yield of native monomer depends strongly on the initial protein concentrations in the refolding solution. Reasonable yields are attained at low concentrations (≤0.1 mg/mL). However, large buffer tanks and time-consuming concentration steps are required. We attempt to answer the question of the extent to which refolding of proteins is protected by patents. Low-molecular mass additives have been developed to improve refolding yields through the stabilization of the protein in solution and shielding hydrophobic patches. Progress has been made in the field of high-pressure renaturation and on-column refolding. Mixing times of the denatured protein in the refolding buffer have been reduced using newly developed devices and the introduction of specific mixers. Concepts of continuous refolding have been introduced to reduce tank sizes and increase yields. Some of the patents covering refolding of proteins will soon expire or have already expired. This gives more freedom to operate.