For the most part, since the establishment of reliable methods for extracting and culturing cells in the lab (in vitro), biologists have cultured these cells in dishes or plates, usually glass or plastic. An extraordinary amount of progress has been made in understanding the fundamentals of cell biology using these techniques. However, a realization has arisen over the last 30 years or so that 2D cell biology does not accurately represent tissue, particularly in the case of disease modelling. Numerous differences exist between cells grown in 2D and in 3D, and these differences result in changes in the fundamental biology of the cell, but also in the physiology of the networks of cells or tissues. At a basic level this can translate to significant differences when exposed to drugs or toxins, for example for pharmaceutical research, which can– and has– led to misleading data about the efficacy or mechanism of drugs.

That’s where you come in as a materials scientist or engineer. The generation of 3D cell models relies on the use of a biopolymer, scaffold or other materials solution to move away from a planar or 2D configuration. Materials used in 3D cell biology are thus crucial in diverse research fields such as tissue engineering and in vitro organ/tissue models development.  More than ever, cell biology requires developments in materials science and related technologies to advance our basic understanding of cell biology and generate novel solutions for problems in diagnostics and therapeutics.

Still not sure? Read this special issue of the journal MRS Communications where we have brought together a collection of articles from experts in the field focusing on 3D cell biology. We have placed a particular focus on capturing the achievements and future contributions of materials scientists and engineers in this exciting new area of biology. This special issue provides a snapshot of cutting-edge research in the field of 3D cell biology, combined with perspectives from leading actors in this area on current and future trends. It is undeniable that materials research has made a significant contribution to this field, and will continue to do so, through the generation and implementation of ever-more innovative and multifunctional materials. The impact of this research in the future is certain to be positive with respect to the development of tissue implants, but also the generation of novel, more effective therapies and a better fundamental understanding of biological systems in a more realistic (3D) setting.

Access this special issue without charge until February 28, 2018.

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