There exists a plethora of human diseases and conditions that are very complex to understand, like cancer. It has become very important to understand how disease manifests, what drugs work in curing it, and also predict how severe it can turn. Today, researchers are constantly working towards deciphering the complexities of human diseases for the betterment of global health.
So how do researchers study human diseases? Surely it is not possible to use humans as lab rats. That’s why the scientific community uses animals like mice to model diseases. Believe it or not, these models have a lot in common with humans more than one thinks, genetically of course. For example, 85% of mice’s DNA is similar to humans. So, scientists can take a bet that if one thing is occurring in humans, there’s an 85% chance that it happens in a mouse too. Although these models help reveal a lot about human conditions, they have their own limitations for other applications like drug discovery.
In a quest to search for sustainable models that offered better accuracy, scientists turned to studying human cells in-vitro i.e. in the lab. Take the example of HeLa cells, the lung cancer cells obtained from a woman, Henrietta Lacks in 1951 (Watch Famous Hollywood Movie here). These cells are widely used to study different aspects of lung cancer to date. Now, the simplest way to study these cells is by growing these cells in a plate. As most human cells attach themselves to the surface of the container the model is two-dimensional (2D). Although human in nature, such a model does not resemble the workings of the human body and thus we cannot rely on the results obtained, especially in drug testing.
But as we have heard, Necessity is the mother of all inventions! The limitations of both the animal models and in-vitro studies led to the development of 3D cell culture. This novel type of cell culture allows the cells to grow & interact with the environment just like they do inside the human body (in-vivo). Offering the benefits of both in-vitro and in-vivo conditions, 3D culture has gained a lot of popularity for a wide range of applications. For instance, at Nanomedicine Research Group, we have developed a 3D culture of lung cancer cells to test a novel nanoparticle-based drug delivery method. In a separate study, we developed biocompatible structures to support and assemble skin cells in their native architecture as an attempt for wound healing.
What does this mean for the future? 3D cell culture offers high throughput screening of many drug candidates which would result in better precision in drug discovery. Researchers are also looking at the prospect of developing different disease models using 3D cell culture to get a better understanding of the disease. Such advancements give better hope for the future of global health!