For many years, monolayer cell cultures grown on plastic surfaces was a common method of studying cells in vitro. However, research advancements have since led to the development of 3D culture techniques that better mimic in vivo conditions. This milestone has allowed scientists to layer various cell types in culture – a technique that could open up new ways to approach disease modeling and drug development.
Creating miniature organs
The ability to study how multiple cell types interact has led to a better understanding of cellular biology. This has now progressed to researchers being able to manipulate cells beyond simple co-cultures, and instead form entire organ systems. Last year, scientists used cells from a mouse embryo to create a functioning thymus in the lab.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, just recently, another team of researchers arranged human stem cells into a structure that closely mimics our airways. These ‘mini-lungs’ could provide insight into the complexities of human lungs, the pathogenesis of pulmonary diseases, and data on how the tissues respond to various drugs. Such models provide a more physiologically relevant view than traditional monolayer cultures, aiding in the move away from a need for animals in translational research.
A better understanding of how cells respond to their environment has given rise to so-called ‘organs-on-chips’ – microchips that mimic the mechanical and chemical characteristics of organs. The chips are lined with cultured human cells in microfluidic channels and work together with automated instruments that provide real-time data on the biochemical functions of the ‘organ’. The scientists behind the idea hope that in the future they will be able to connect multiple organs-on-chips to essentially produce a ‘human-on-a-chip’. While a relatively new technology, these chips could provide valuable information on how individual organs respond to drugs.
Research efforts in developing 3D culture techniques are skyrocketing, and the ability to model organs in the lab will undoubtedly provide us with a more holistic understanding of various diseases and their interactions with different drugs or treatments.
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