How 3D Cultures Better Mimic In Vivo Conditions | 3D Cell Culturing | Corning

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Outside of direct in vivo experiments, most biomedical research processes involve some level of metaphor. Whether it's a cluster of liver cells standing in for an entire liver or a mouse brain taking the place of a human brain, the goal of these models is to reduce the impact of the metaphor as much as possible while enabling further research.

That quest to create better and more accurate representations of organs and organisms led to major developments of newer and better forms of cell and tissue cultures — namely 3D cell cultures. 3D cell cultures can provide a more representative platform for drug development and other applications, and they're well on their way to becoming the standard step between traditional 2D cell culturing and full-scale animal testing.

Necessary, but Increasingly Insufficient

The traditional 2D cell culture is still used as a primary experimental tool all across the world, and with good reason. That traditional model helped scientists develop penicillin, cancer treatments, and many more medical marvels.

The validity of the 2D model, however, is diminished by the totally flat growth medium and the dearth of cell and tissue types present in it. Without an accurate array of cell types nearby and without cells of their type packed around them, cells simply don't develop the way they would in vivo.

Just Like the Real Thing

The differences in how 2D and 3D cell cultures behave are not small in magnitude, nor are they random in nature. Complex biological processes almost always involve directional or density-based considerations that 2D cell cultures cannot account for. Tumor cells are less responsive to anti-cancer drugs when arranged in three dimensions, for instance, and most neurons are less sensitive to rapid neuronal activity all around them.

Researchers have observed that 3D arrangements of tumor cells can affect cell behaviors, including differentiation, progression, and metastasis. Because these cells are evolved for a 3D environment, they are almost always hardier and more viable in that form than they would be in a thin layer or a monolayer. As a result, 2D cultures could systematically overestimate the effectiveness of chemical countermeasures.

Put simply, 3D cultures better mimic in vivo conditions because they provide cells the physical environment they need to interact naturally.

Because 3D cell cultures are so effective, more types of them are proliferating ⁠— in particular, tailored organoid models designed to create a specific 3D arrangement of cell and tissue types associated with a specific organ. It's an elaboration of the long-running practice of using a spheroid model for cancer research, but because organoids display the interactions between multiple cell types, they can be applied to a much wider array of topics.

How the Industry Is Adapting

Until recently, the time sink associated with developing a working 3D culture for research prevented many labs from making use of it. But there are now myriad products that help researchers efficiently design and grow a wide variety of viable 3D cultures.

Researchers can use optimized hydrogels to provide a physical matrix to enable growth in three dimensions and the nutrients needed to facilitate that growth. They can procure spheroid microplates to quickly run hundreds of small 3D trials with zero cross-talk.

Ultimately, it's the patients who will feel the impact of this technology the most, as their treatment regimes will begin to adapt to their specific biological makeup instead of treating every cancer as identical.

The potential of 3D tissue culture is finally being realized in labs around the world, and researchers can now marry the ease of the traditional petri dish to the validity of a real animal model.