Scientists at Durham University and its spin-out company ReInnervate Limited have done pioneering work in stem cell proliferation and other tissues in their laboratory that grow similar to in-vivo conditions.
The researchers say that the technology developed by them is a plastic scaffold that allows cells to be grown in a more realistic three-dimensional (3D) form, compared to the traditional flat surface of a Petri dish.
The technology is a cheap and straightforward way of cultivating cells in 3D, say the researchers.
According to them, it may lead to more successful drug development programmes and a reduction in unnecessary tests on animals.
Funded by ReInnervate and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the new study has been published in the Journal of Anatomy.
The report says that the scientists have tested the toxic effect of a cancer drug called Methotrexate (MTX) on liver cells grown in three and two dimensions.
The researcher found that the structure and properties of the cells grown using the 3D scaffold were most similar to liver cells found in the human body, compared with the 2D cells that appeared "disorganised" when viewed under the microscope, the report adds.
It further states that cells grown in 2D died at very low concentrations, whereas 3D cells grown using the scaffold were far more robust and more accurately reflected the behaviour of cells in the human body, when subjected to similar doses of the drug.
Dr Stefan Przyborski, a senior researcher with Durham University and Chief Scientific Officer of ReInnervate, has tested ten different tissue types on the scaffold—including bone, liver, fat and stem cells from bone marrow. The researcher is marketing the product for commercial use.
The scaffold is made of highly porous polystyrene resembles a thin white disc, and it is about the size of a ten pence piece. Its structure resembles to that of a sponge, and is riddled with tiny holes that scientists are able to populate with cells. The cells are then cultivated under laboratory conditions.
According to the researchers, the technology may be used to grow human stem cells for drug development. It may reduce the need for the tests on animals, they say.
"Our results suggest that testing drugs on liver cells using our 3D culture system may be more likely to reflect true physiological responses to toxic substances. Because the 3D cells are cultivated under more realistic conditions, it means that they function more like real tissues," Dr Przyborski said
"Scientists are therefore able to gain a more accurate idea of how a drug will behave in the human body, knowledge which can contribute to improving the efficiency of drug discovery, reducing drug development costs, and may help reduce the number of animals in research," he added.
Dr. Przyborski also said that the new technology is not only cheaper as compared to the other approaches, but it is easy to use in routine applications also.
"There are other ways to growing cells in 3D in the laboratory. However, these approaches are restricted by their variability, complexity, expense and they are not easily adapted to routine use in high throughput screening studies," he said.
"Our technology is essentially a well engineered piece of plastic that provides a suitable environment for cells to grow more naturally in a 3D configuration. Our product is available off-the-shelf, it is easy to use in routine applications, it is highly adaptable to different tests, it is inert and it is cheap and easy to produce and manufacture," he added.