Intracellular characterization of Gag VLP production by transient transfection of HEK 293 cells

Laura Cervera, Irene González-Domínguez, María Mercedes Segura, Francesc Gòdia

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25 Citations (Scopus)


© 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Transient transfection is a fast, flexible, and cost-effective approach to produce biological products. Despite the continued interest in transient transfection, little is known regarding the transfection process at the intracellular level, particularly for complex products, such as virus-like particles (VLPs). The kinetics of PEI-mediated transfection following an established in-house protocol is reported in this work with the aim of characterizing and understanding the complete process leading to VLP generation and identifying important events driving process improvement. For this purpose, DNA/PEI polyplexes’ internalization in cells was tracked using Cy3 DNA staining. The production of a fluorescently labeled Gag polyprotein (a Gag-GFP fusion construct that forms fluorescent Gag-VLPs) was monitored by flow cytometry and confocal microscopy, and the VLP concentration in supernatants was measured by fluorometry. DNA/PEI polyplexes interact with the cell membrane immediately after polyplex addition to the cell culture. A linear increase in the number of cells expressing the protein is observed during the first 60 min of contact between the cells and polyplexes. No additional improvement in the number of cells expressing the protein (up to 60%) or VLP production (up to 1 × 1010 VLPs/mL) is observed with additional contact time between the cells and polyplexes. Polyplexes can be detected in the cytoplasm of transfected cells as early as 1.5 h post-transfection (hpt) and reach the nucleus approximately 4 hpt. GFP fluorescence is observed homogeneously in the cytoplasm of transfected cells 24 hpt, but generalized VLP budding is not observed by microscopy until 48 hpt. Although all cells have internalized a polyplex soon after transfection, only a fraction of cells (60%) express the fluorescent Gag protein. VLP production kinetics was also studied. Fluorescence in the supernatant (enveloped VLPs) is 40% less than total fluorescence, supernatant plus pellet (total Gag-GFP), indicating that there is a fraction of Gag that remains inside the cells. The maximum VLP concentration in the cell culture supernatant with cell viability >89% was observed at 72 hpt, which was determined to be the optimal harvest time. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2017;114: 2507–2517. © 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2507-2517
JournalBiotechnology and Bioengineering
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2017


  • intracellular tracking
  • mammalian cells
  • polyethylenimine
  • transient transfection kinetics
  • vaccine production
  • virus-like particles


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