3D cell culture is a technique that allows cells to be grown in a 3D environment outside of the original organism. Compared to the traditional approach of growing cells on a flat surface, the 3D environment resembles the conditions of the body more closely as the cells have space to grow in all three dimensions and interact with one another like they would in vivo.


3D cell culture definition

Cell culture means that cells are taken outside of the living organism and grown under controlled conditions. Typically, cell culture refers to growth of human and animal derived cells or cells from other higher eukaryotes, as opposed to the growth of bacterial, fungal or plant cells. 3D cell culture means that cells can grow and move left and right, up and down, forwards and backwards, and interact with surfaces in all three of these dimensions.

Therefore, one definition of 3D cell culture is: the cultivation of higher eukaryotic cells under controlled conditions, in a space that has no physical limits that prevent growth or movement in a particular direction.


What is 3D cell culture used for?

3D cell cultures have various applications, including:


Drug discovery

Cancer research

Differentiation studies

Gene and protein expression studies

Cell physiology studies


3D cell culture models 

3D cell culture experiments can be done utilizing different models, such as embedding the cells within a physical matrix or growing the cells on ultra-low attachment plates. The 3D cell culture techniques have both advantages and disadvantages depending on the application area and the desired results of the cell culture research project. An overview of advantages and disadvantages of the different 3D cell culture models are further discussed here.

Read more about 3D cell culture models


2D vs 3D cell culture 

In the early days of cell culture research, 2D cell culture was the standard method for cell culture. However, the structure of 2D cell cultures do not mimic the natural environment of cells due to the absence of an entire dimension. To combat these issues, 3D cell culture was developed.

While 2D cells are still technically the same cells that are found inside the body, their behaviour is very different when they can only grow in a single plane, and as a result, also have very different interactions with the surrounding environment. In contrast, 3D cell culture allows for in vivo like interactions, morphology, and growth, and some methods, such as 3D cell culture in hydrogel, even allow for tissue stiffness to be mimicked.

Read more about 2D vs. 3D cell culture models


3D spheroid and organoid culture 

3D cell culture is needed to culture spheroids and organoids. While these terms are often used interchangeably, the main difference between the two terms is that spheroids are simpler, spherical, and usually contain just one cell type, while organoids are more complex, containing a variety of cellular phenotypes and thus mimic organs in miniature form. The more closely the grown mass resembles native tissue within the body, the more reliable the results of your in vitro studies. 

Read more about 3D spheroid and organoid culture 


3D cell culture applications and protocols 

3D cell culture can be used for various applications such as drug discovery, disease models, drug delivery, stem cell research and development of cell therapies. It is suitable for any mammalian cell type from common cancer cell lines [e.g. HeLa, A549, MCF7] to stem cells [e.g. iPSC’s, ESC’s, MSC’s] and non-human mammalian cell lines [e.g. CHO, BHK, 3T6] 


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