Membrane research moves forward with additional five years of NSF funding

Q&A with Andrew Zydney, director of the Membrane Applications, Science and Technology Center

March 4, 2024

By Mariah R. Lucas

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Membrane Applications, Science and Technology (MAST) Center, an industry-university cooperative research center supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and co-led by Penn State, recently received five additional years of funding. The funding will allow for an expansion of the center at Penn State, which has served as one of four of the center’s partner academic institutions since 2019.   

The MAST Center funds and organizes research projects on biopharmaceutical manufacturing, water purification, chemical separations and membrane fundamentals. At Penn State, membrane research focuses on the production of lifesaving remedies like vaccines and gene therapies. The four co-principal investigators in the College of Engineering are: Andrew Zydney, the Bayard D. Kunkle Chair and professor of chemical engineering; Enrique Gomez, professor of chemical engineering and interim associate dean for equity and inclusion; Hee Jeung Oh, assistant professor of chemical engineering; and Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering and Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Early Career Chair in Biomaterials and Regenerative Engineering.  

Penn State News caught up with Zydney, director of the MAST Center at Penn State, to hear about what the center has accomplished so far and its plans for the next five years.  

Q: What is Penn State’s role in the MAST Center, particularly as it involves engineering faculty and students?  

Zydney: The MAST Center strives to be the premier academic–industry research partnership for membrane science and technology. The overall mission of the center, which Penn State has embraced, is to provide value for our industry sponsors through high-quality research and access to experimental facilities, while providing a unique training environment for students and postdoctoral scholars. The membership fees provided by our industry sponsors are used to support graduate students working on center-funded research. We are always looking to recruit new faculty with creative ideas related to the development, characterization and application of membrane technology. 

Q: What plans does the MAST Center have for expansion, both in areas of research and in industry partners? 

Zydney: The primary focus of the Penn State site has been in the area of biopharmaceutical processing. This is an exciting time for the biopharmaceutical industry, with entirely new classes of medicines being developed. Membrane technology will play a critical role in the production and purification of these lifesaving drugs. This includes mRNA-based vaccines, like those used to protect against COVID-19 infection, and new gene therapies that use adeno-associated viruses to deliver DNA that can effectively cure hereditary diseases. We are actively looking to attract new industry sponsors who are interested in financially supporting these research efforts and becoming involved in the center’s highly collaborative research programs. This includes both membrane developers as well as users of membrane technology.

Q: What are some of the MAST Center’s major achievements since 2019? 

Zydney: I am most proud of the 15 doctoral students who have received financial support and training through the center over the past five years. Eight of these students have already graduated and are now working at biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies like Genentech, AbbVie, Spark Therapeutics and Sanofi.  

As for research, the purification of novel gene therapy agents requires the use of membranes with larger pore size. Penn State led an effort to develop more quantitative methods for evaluating the pore size and retention characteristics of these membranes that has had a direct impact on membrane development and applications. We also spearheaded a large collaboration with our colleagues at the University of Arkansas, Amgen, Biogen, MilliporeSigma and Repligen that has provided new insights into membrane fouling phenomena that govern the processing of mammalian cell cultures that produce monoclonal antibody products. 

Q: What are the MAST Center’s goals for the next five years?  

Zydney: We are excited about opportunities to expand our industry partnerships, including with smaller start-up companies. We recently developed an associate membership level that will enable small businesses to join the center with a reduced membership fee. We also plan to increase the diversity of the faculty and graduate student researchers within the center. In addition, the NSF provides opportunities for supplemental funding that can be used to support graduate students working on industry internships as part of their doctoral programs; this can significantly expand the educational experiences available within the MAST Center.


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