3D Cell Culture Solutions: Emerging Trends in Cancer Therapy

Encouraging developments continue to be made in the fight against cancer, with new approaches bringing valuable insights and spurring additional research. One method that's been consistently generating curiosity and excitement is 3D cell culture.

Several emerging trends in cancer therapy were presented at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 2022 Annual Meeting, and the United Kingdom's Wellcome Sanger Institute summarized five key issues: early diagnosis in the pre-cancer stage; targeting the microenvironment; equity and representation from underrepresented populations; novel biomarker evaluation; and personalized therapeutics. Interestingly, each issue points to cancer models using 3D cell culture as a solution.

Hilary Sherman, a senior applications scientist at Corning Life Sciences, confirms this. "3D cell cultures allow researchers to create more relevant models such as organoids, which are much more reflective of the patient than cultures grown in 2D," she notes. "Better models help to produce better data resulting in better treatments."

What Is 3D Cell Culture?

Most in vitro cancer models rely on immortalized cancer cell lines grown as traditional 2D cell cultures. This can have have limitations, such as the inability to recapitulate the geometry of a tumor and often does not adequately reflect the tumor microenvironment.

With 3D models, cells grow in clusters (spheroids) or in combinations with other cells forming an in vitro approximation of normal tissue architecture (organoids). Further physiologically relevant cancer models include organ-on-a-chip (OoC) constructs that combine organoids with microfluidics to replicate mini body systems. Further enhancements to 3D cell culture include bioprinting organoids, where researchers can precisely build up dimensional models to replicate living tissues.

What Are the Latest Developments in This Field?

3D cell culture technology has advanced considerably in recent years. Sherman notes that Corning now offers a wide variety of products and technical resources to support this in cancer research. "Specifically, our 3D products come to mind," she says. "We offer a wide variety of products for supporting 3D cell cultures, which include scaffold, scaffold-free, biological hydrogels, as well as synthetic hydrogels."

Tools and consumables such as Corning® Matrigel® basement membrane matrix, Elplasia® multiwell microcavity growth plates, and the Matribot® bioprinter make it easy to create highly consistent cancer models for high throughput screening.

All of these products support spheroid, organoid, and tissue models used in basic cancer research as well as more complex applications and drug discovery.

How Does 3D Cell Culture Fit into New Cancer Research?

According to Sherman, 3D cell culture is highly suited to research into emerging trends in cancer therapy because of its ability to closely replicate in vivo conditions. "I think the most common feature of cancer research is that you want to generate the most physiologically relevant model possible to better replicate real life," she explains.

Feedback from her customers convinces Sherman that 3D cell culture technology is essential to new cancer research. "One of the things that amazes me the most is researchers are again and again showing the similarities in histological features between biopsies from the patient and the cultured organoids derived from them," she notes. "There are also many papers now showing how predictive these organoids are in determining the patient's response to treatment."

With 3D cell culture, this approximation to normal tissue architecture delivers cancer models that behave in a physiologically relevant manner. New cancer research can now look at how the tumor behaves in situ, surrounded by support cells that often influence growth, response to drugs, and the host immune system. Moreover, with OoC technology, drug toxicity screening can show the effect on tumors as well as other body systems like the liver.

Sherman also notes that 3D cell culture offers time and cost savings compared to traditional approaches. "It really comes down to what tools will help the user balance making the best model for recapitulating in vivo while still being able to accomplish the experimental goals in terms of reproducibility, cost, and throughput," she observes.

Specifically, 3D cell culture solutions support the AACR 2022 key emerging trends in cancer therapy, namely personalized medicine, early diagnosis and biomarker discovery, and drug discovery.

Personalized Medicine

Creating 3D cell cultures using patient-derived tumor organoids (PDTOs) lets researchers identify specific tumor markers and evaluate potential therapies tailored to the individual. High throughput approaches accelerate drug evaluation and toxicity studies.

Early Diagnosis and Biomarker Discovery

The ability to examine tumor behavior in a physiologically relevant microenvironment means researchers can see what influences growth and how the cancer reacts to chemotherapy. 3D cell culture accurately reflects tumor type and heterogeneity in vitro.

Drug Discovery

Bioprinting organoids and OoC technology provide consistent high throughput screening approaches that accelerate chemotherapy and toxicity studies in physiologically relevant microenvironments.

What's Next in 3D Cell Culture for Cancer Research and Modeling?

As Sherman notes, "There is a lot of buzz around personalized medicine these days. We know that with some types of cancers, patients will respond very differently to drugs. The idea around growing a patient's own cells in order to determine the best treatment for that individual has a lot of interest."

Furthermore, since organoids are patient-derived, underrepresented populations don't miss out on diagnostic and clinical investigations.

In 2022, Corning hosted a Virtual 3D Cell Culture Summit in New York City. Sherman reports hearing from many Corning customers about how organoid models are helping them get more precise at delivering the right treatments to the right patients with much more successful outcomes.

"[This] is a huge win for the cancer research and treatments in the future," Sherman explains.

Predicting the future is always difficult. However, progress in 3D cell culture technology and emerging trends in cancer therapy make it easier to predict future needs cancer models will need to meet.

"I think more advanced and reproducible organoid models are what's next," Sherman says. "This could be for taking a more personalized medicine approach for treatment or for just making more diverse libraries for testing drugs so that we can have a better understanding of how drugs may respond to a diverse population."

To make this a reality, Corning continues to supply cutting-edge 3D cell culture tools — like Matrigel® matrix for organoid culture as well as spheroid microplates — and work toward new developments in cancer research. To learn more about the advancements being made, read the e-book How to Get Started in 3D Cell Culture.