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A Short Introduction to Cell Culture


Cell culture is a vitally important process in many modern biological laboratories.

Cell culture is the growth and testing of living cells separate from their organism of origin. Cells are isolated and removed from the organism and placed in an artificial environment designed to support their survival and proliferation, as well as to introduce any particular test variables or conditions.

Cell culture is used in laboratories for a variety of biological applications. Drug development and testing processes often use cell cultures in order to assess the effects of compounds on organic cells, while a range of physiological and biochemical information can also be acquired from a culture process.

Human stem cells are also commonly used in cell culture processes in order to increase the available basis of cell material, and for the isolation of certain cell types to contribute to research in new therapies.

The history of cell culture

Various early iterations of the tissue and cell culture process were carried out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by researchers including Sydney Ringer, Wilhelm Roux, Ross Granville Harrison and Richard Goldschmidt.

In the 1940s and 1950s the field grew significantly in order to support advances in research into viruses, resulting in notable successes such as the development of an early polio vaccine in 1948.

In recent years the process of 3D cell culture, described further below, has become increasingly popular, giving analysts new tools to investigate more aspects of cell behaviour.

What is the cell culture process ?

Although cell culture processes vary depending on the type of cell and culture media used, and the objective of the analysis, the basic steps in the procedure are as follows:

  1. Harvesting of cells from organism of origin
  2. Isolation of target cells of interest
  3. Application of target cells to a bespoke growth medium
  4. Incubation of target cells in growth medium to encourage growth and proliferation
  5. Verification of cultured cells
  6. Further analysis or experimentation on verified cells

To ensure success in this process several aspects of the environment need to be carefully controlled in order to provide the ideal conditions in which cells can grow and develop.

How to ensure cell culture success?

Each cell type requires a culture environment that meets its specific needs by providing the right gases, nutrients, growth hormones, substrate, temperature and solution pH.

Some cells also need to migrate during culture to develop correctly, so this mobility needs to be enabled by the medium, whereas others will only culture successfully when anchored to another material.

Cell culture success is significantly improved with the use of a high quality and biocompatible medium/matrix that is able to contribute to the ideal growth conditions, while also securing the cells and maintaining their integrity under testing.

What is the difference between 2D and 3D cell culture?

When cell culture is performed on a flat substrate, usually in a petri dish, with cell growth and division occurring in a single plane, the process is known as 2D cell culture. This is the most common form of the process and has traditionally been the primary way to generate and analyse new cell cultures.

In recent years the concept of 3D cell culture has been gaining significant traction. In 3D cell culture the materials usually make use of a scaffold or a scaffold free 3D matrix giving greater freedom, the ability to grow in an in vivo like manner  and mobility to the developing cells in three dimensions.

This extracellular matrix (ECM) also plays a very important role in enabling cells to communicate with their environment. In living tissues the ECM is a support structure connected to cells and is usually made up of proteins such as collagen, laminin or elastin.

3D cell culture is showing significant promise in several areas of research including cancer cell analysis and drug discovery. The increased spatial freedom and capabilities are enabling analysts to test new ideas and cell lines in conditions that more closely resemble human, animal and plant bodies.

When performed correctly, with the use of high-quality media and nutrients, cell cultures produce accurate and consistent results.  This critical process has been the backbone of major research across many areas of biology, and still plays a vital role in the development of new vaccines, drugs, therapies, testing procedures and other procedures today.