Natural products, or their synthetic derivatives are a treasure trove to find potential candidates for novel drugs for human treatment. The selection of diamonds from the huge pile of worthless stone is a critical – and difficult - stage in the discovery pipeline. Of all the factors to be considered, perhaps the most important, is that the compound should have the desired effect on the tissue in vivo. Since it is not possible (or ethical) to test all compounds in vivo one must preselect using a surrogate assay system. While animal models have the advantage of being holistic and current 3D culture systems are reductionistic, they at least can be constructed from human cell types.
In this review we will consider some of the evidence demonstrating that cells grown in 3D cultures have physiological performances that mimic functions seen in human tissues significantly better than cells grown using classical 2D culture systems. We will discuss advantages and disadvantages of these new culture technologies and highlight theoretical reasons for the differences.
3D cell culture technologies are more labour intensive than 2D culture systems and therefore their introduction is a trade-off between the value of obtaining data that is more relevant to the human condition against their through-put. It is already clear that future in vitro 3D systems will become more complex, using multiple cell types to more faithfully represent a particular tissue or even organ system. And one thing is sure – the diamonds are not easy to find!