Freezing step in lyophilization

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1. Introduction

Lyophilization respectively freeze-drying is an important and well-established process to improve the long-term stability of labile drugs, especially therapeutic proteins.[1] About 50% of the currently marketed biopharmaceuticals are lyophilized, representing the most common formulation strategy.[2] In the freeze-dried solid state chemical or physical degradation reactions are inhibited or sufficiently decelerated, resulting in an improved long-term stability.[3] Besides the advantage of better stability, lyophilized formulations also provide easy handling during shipping and storage. [1]

A traditional lyophilization cycle consists of three steps; freezing, primary drying and secondary drying.[1] During the freezing step, the liquid formulation is cooled until ice starts to nucleate, which is followed by ice growth, resulting in a separation of most of the water into ice crystals from a matrix of glassy and/or crystalline solutes.[4-5] During primary drying, the crystalline ice formed during freezing is removed by sublimation. Therefore, the chamber pressure is reduced well below the vapor pressure of ice and the shelf temperature is raised to supply the heat removed by ice sublimation.[6] At the completion of primary drying, the product can still contain approximately 15% to 20% of unfrozen water, which is desorbed during the secondary drying stage, usually at elevated temperature and low pressure, to finally achieve the desired low moisture content.[7]

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In general, lyophilization is a very time- and energy-intensive drying process.[8]  Typically, freezing is over within a few hours while drying often requires days. Within the drying phase, secondary drying is short (~hours) compared to primary drying (~days).[1, 4] Therefore, lyophilization cycle development has typically focused on optimizing the primary drying step, i.e., shortening the primary drying time by adjusting the shelf temperature and/or chamber pressure without influencing product quality.[5, 9] Although, freezing is one of the most critical stages during lyophilization, the importance of the freezing process has rather been neglected in the past.[10] 

The freezing step is of paramount importance. At first, freezing itself is the major desiccation step in lyophilization [6] as solvent water is removed from the liquid formulation in the form of a pure solid ice phase, leading to a dramatic concentration of the solutes.[11-12] Moreover, the kinetics of ice nucleation and crystal growth determine the physical state and morphology of the frozen cake and consequently the final properties of the freeze-dried product.[11-13] Ice morphology is directly correlated with the rate of sublimation in primary and secondary drying.[14] In addition, freezing is a critical step with regard to the biological activity and stability of the active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), especially pharmaceutical proteins.[1]

While simple in concept, the freezing process is presumably the most complex but also the most important step in the lyophilization process.[10] To meet this challenge, a thorough understanding of the physico-chemical processes, which occur during freezing, is required. Moreover, in order to optimize the freeze drying process and product quality,

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