3D Cell Culture Techniques: From Academia to Big Pharma | Corning

If you attended a major life sciences event in 2010, you probably didn't see much mention of 3D cell culture research in posters or presentations. Back then, it was an academic curiosity, not something scientists took seriously — at least not in big pharma.

What a difference a decade makes. Today, 3D cell culture isn't just the stuff of obscure posters or presentations; entire conferences examine the promise of 3D. And big pharma is getting involved: The 3D Cell Culture 2020 conference in Germany, which was postponed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, was slated to include pharmaceutical voices on its planning committee and in its lectures.

"Over the years, interest has gone up," said Hilary Sherman, a senior applications scientist with Corning Life Sciences. "And then at SLAS, which we recently attended earlier this year, it just seemed like everybody was talking about 3D."

The Rise of 3D Cell Culture Research

3D cell culturing is getting attention from pharma's heavy hitters, such as Novartis, according to GEN Edge News, thanks to its biological and operational factors. For one, 3D models more closely mimic in vivo conditions than 2D cell culture models. First explored in grant-funded spaces, 3D cell culturing can be an upgrade, and it has widespread — and widely documented — potential.

"One of the things that has guided big pharma's interest is all of the academic and government research that has taken place over the past several years," said Jeff Heath, a drug discovery sales specialist with Corning. "They started this trend, and their presenting on research at conferences and publications has had an impact."

The literature had long praised the promise of 3D, but industry uptake didn't accelerate until it became operationally feasible to produce 3D work at scale. Commercial tools and technologies that make 3D more accessible and less labor-intensive have helped make that happen.

"Whereas academic labs can approach projects from a high-labor, low-cost standpoint because they have the labor but not the money, that model just isn't realistic in pharma," Sherman said. "Commercial researchers need something easy to work with, easy to scale to throughput, and easy to automate."

Because labor and time are precious in the fast-paced pharmaceutical industry, high-throughput solutions that enable more efficient workflow — such as microplates pre-dispensed with an extracellular matrix solution — have helped shrink investment per well to cost-effective levels. Over time, this has unlocked market growth and opened new opportunities across therapeutic areas.

Considerations Before Making the Move

"Most areas of research have taken an interest in 3D," Heath said. "It's spreading throughout the industry to many different therapeutic indications."

Those indications run the gamut of bench work, but going from 2D to 3D is still case-dependent, highly specialized, and, in part, held up by hurdles, such as the time it takes imaging platforms to scan and analyze 3D structures. Because of these considerations, 3D cultures aren't yet ubiquitous in drug development.

"If you're getting the answers to your questions in 2D, most people would ask 'Why should we move to 3D?'" Sherman said. "Those who are moving to 3D are only doing so because they have a reason to believe that their questions cannot be adequately answered with 2D."

Right now, oncology has seen the most activity from 3D cultures, and that's prompted manufacturers to shift their focus and budgets to unlocking its potential. Many manufacturers have created specialized groups that work solely on developing 3D models.

A Future Where 2D and 3D Coexist

Still, new developments don't mean that 2D will get put on the back burner in cancer research or in any other indication. On the contrary: Sherman sees a future where the two techniques coexist in big pharma, each serving equally important objectives in the lab.

"It just depends on what you're looking for," Sherman said. "If you're aiming for a certain level of quality of the data, you might need to invest a little more in 3D as the more appropriate option. But 2D will be just fine for many questions that need to be answered."

Though we haven't yet reached the point where those decisions are straightforward, there's still reason to be excited about the evolutions that have taken shape.

"I think there's been a lot of progress in pharma accepting 3D work," Heath said. "We're moving in the right direction."