3D Tissue Culture Technology: The Future of Cancer Research?

Adrian Kuchtaruk
22 September 2017

Above: Image © anttohoho, iStockphoto.com

Living with cancer is hard and scary, both for the person who has it and the people around them. But did you know that, between 1988 - 2007, the cancer survival rate has increased? While this is good news, scientists continue to search for a cure. A process called 3D tissue culturing might help. It allows scientists to grow cells outside of the body that closely resemble cells inside the body.

Did you know? There are over 100 types of cancer.

What is tissue culturing?

Tissue culturing is a process in which scientists can produce tissue cells outside of a living organism. This is useful for research and experiments. For example, scientists can use cultured cells to test how the tissue cells act under different conditions, or when they’re exposed to different substances.

To understand tissue culturing, it’s important to understand these terms:

In vitro experiments are done in a controlled environment outside of live organisms.

In vivo experiments are done in a live organism.

Tissue culture experiments are done in vitro. To culture the cells, scientists place them in a petri dish (or a similar dish) with a specific amount of nutrients, hormones, and temperature conditions. This lets the cells produce more identical cells.

How is tissue culturing used in cancer research?

Tissue culturing allows scientists to take cancer tissues, isolate the cancer cells and multiply them in different petri dishes. This way, scientists can do different experiments on each dish. This lets scientists study how these cancer cells function. This, in turn, will hopefully help scientists determine how to prevent the cells from multiplying- and how to kill them altogether.

Scientists can then use these findings to research possible cures for cancer.

2D versus 3D tissue culturing

There are two more terms that are important to understand:

A 2D tissue culture consists of cells grown as a thin, two-dimensional layer in a petri dish.

A 3D tissue culture consists of cells grown three-dimensionally.

Traditionally, tissue cultures have been done in 2D. 3D tissue culturing is a more recently-discovered process. 3D tissue cultures resemble in vivo cells far more closely than 2D in vitro cell cultures can. This increases the chances of a scientist getting accurate results in an experiment.

Did you know? To help the tissue culture become three-dimensional, scientists grow it on a frame or scaffold.

Although this 3D technology is an incredible advancement, there are some drawbacks compared to 2D tissue culturing. For example, 3D tissue culture cells can be more challenging to manipulate and observe than 2D ones.

How scientists use 3D culture

Scientists have already found practical applications for 3D tissue culture. For example, a team of scientists made an important discovery about two molecules thanks to a 3D tissue culture sample. The team learned that the interaction of two molecules (α5β1-integrin and fibronectin) helps breast cancer cells survive radiation therapy. That’s a very bad thing. Now that they know about this interaction, scientists trying to find a cure for this cancer can focus on these two molecules. This is a great example of how 3D tissue culturing can benefit cancer research!

Scientists are continuing to learn more about 3D cell culturing. 3D tissue culture technology is increasingly more complex than the 2D models. But 3D cultures just might be the future in cancer research.

Learn more!

Adding depth to cell culture (2017)
K. Powell, Science

Three-Dimensional Cell Culture Systems and Their Applications in Drug Discovery and Cell-Based Biosensors (2014)
R. Edmondson, J. J. Broglie, A. F. Adcock & L. Yang, Assay Drug Dev Technol. 12

Tissue culture
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica

Adrian Kuchtaruk



Originally from Sudbury, ON, currently pursuing an undergraduate at Queen's University. I have actively tutored many of my peers and other students in subjects ranging from chemistry, biology and physics, to calculus and functions. I have a strong interest in evolutionary biology and am looking to further my studies by pursuing a masters degree in the near future. I have been an active volunteer with Let's Talk Science and am looking to further my love of science by volunteering with Curiocity. In my spare time I love to play basketball and going out on the lake during the summer.