Updated: Jan 26
The International World Cancer Research Fund estimates that more than 18 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year. Unfortunately, approximately 10 million will eventually die as a result. This is why embracing the latest research techniques is so important. Ectica has the ambition to contribute to the advancement of cancer research and to the discovery of new therapies. The hydrogel manufacturers at Ectica have developed novel methods to accommodate the latest trends.
It is still important to discuss several topics. Why are animal-free 3D hydrogels used when researching cancer? What advantages can these methods offer in relation to the "three R's" of research? How has Ectica always intended to remain one step ahead of the curve? We will examine each of these topics immediately below.
What Trends are Hydrogel Manufacturers Currently Adopting?
One recent movement that has enjoyed a fair amount of legal support involves limiting animal-based ingredients within laboratory settings and pre-clinical animal experimentation. This paradigm shift partially stems from ethical concerns, but also from wide spreading capabilities related to the culture of human and even patient-derived cells in in vitro/ex vivo settings.
These advanced human organotypic 3D culture systems hold the promise to offer higher resemblance to the human and patient’s biology compared to animal models. One prime example supporting this fact can be seen in the FDA Modernization Act 2.0 (recently approved by the United States Senate) which wants to enable in some cases researchers to translate their discoveries directly from advanced in vitro/ex vivo cellular systems to the clinical studies without animal experimentation.
Experts in advanced cell culture platforms at Ectica believe that the use of synthetic and animal-free 3D hydrogel substrates (in which cells grow) and synthetic culture media (where cells find nutrients) will be crucial in the future, and their use is becoming commonplace.
Experimental work in mouse models remains predominant in scientific presentations at preclinical oncology research congresses. However, many feels that new cell-based assays will solve animal models limitations by saving time, costs, increase compound applicability and make the experiments patient-specific.
To better appreciate the impact of this trend, it is necessary to understand why hydrogels are used when researching cancers. We can then discuss the benefits and applications of such cutting-edge methods.
3D Hydrogels and Cancer Research: A Basic Overview
Why are hydrogel manufacturers in such high demand in researching various cancer models? Hydrogels are three-dimensional (3D) polymer networks capable of absorbing large quantities of water (or other fluids). They are extremely versatile and are manufactured using various biocompatible polymers. In fact, hydrogels already enjoy a wide variety of uses in the cosmetic/hygiene, biomedical and life science industries, the best known include:
Hygiene products such as toothpaste and hair gel.
Soft contact lenses.
Soft implants for regenerative medicine
Drug delivery systems.
Importantly, hydrogels are widely used as substrates (or sometimes called scaffolds) to grow cells in an environment which mimics the connective tissues of the human body. Our soft tissues can be described as hydrogels made of proteins and sugar polymeric structures loaded with water, in which cells organize in complex 3D tissue structures.
Bioengineers and material scientists have worked for decades to develop such hydrogel-based substrates to culture human cells in vitro, but in more physiological systems compared to the classical petri-dish. Hydrogel manufacturers are therefore key players in the industry developing so-called microphysiological systems (MPS) and organ-on-a-chip platforms which have the ambition to change the research industry, beyond oncology.
Why are Hydrogel Manufacturers Turning Towards Animal-Free Ingredients?
The most famous hydrogels used as substrates for cell culture are extracted from the basal membrane of tumors developed in animals and are composed of thousands of different proteins and other tissue molecules. Beside the important ethical concerns related to the use of animals not only as experimental models but also as the extraction source of reagents used for laboratory experiments, the level of control over the composition of such hydrogels is by many considered insufficient.
This is especially true when immune cells are cultured together with cancer cells to study how to trigger their anti-cancer activity. Here the activation of immune cells has to be controlled and the multitude of non-human molecules floating around are disturbing. The scientific community has decisively tackled these problems over the last two decades and various synthetic hydrogels with complex bioengineered molecular architectures have been developed to offer alternatives to the researchers seeking more reliable and ethical sources and a higher control over the cell culture conditions.
This still comes at a premium price, but experts at Ectica are convinced it is simply a matter of economy of scale. Other massive advantages are the fact that synthetic hydrogels can be tuned and customized for specific needs by adding molecular elements depending on the researcher’s need, and can be stored for months or even years without degrading because they are chemically stable if properly packaged. This is important when creating static substrates such as microtiter well plates pre-casted with 3D hydrogels ready for cell seeding. The process of cellular seeding is then much more efficient.
Hydrogel manufacturers will use the properties of this unique substance to grow, monitor cell cultures under various treatments within controlled settings. Sometimes, these cell-loaded hydrogels will be implanted to test innovative cell therapies. Therefore, scientists will be able to carry out targeted studies that may lead to breakthroughs in cancer treatment techniques.
It should also be mentioned that production methods have become dramatically streamlined in recent years. This addresses potential logistical issues and ensures a higher degree of availability.
What purposes can Polymer Technology and Animal-Free Hydrogel for 3Rs in Cancer Research Serve?
There are many different applications which can be addressed by the hydrogel manufacturers at Ectica. All of these are associated with cancer research's "three R's" (the replacement, refinement and reduction of animal-based studies). The main point is that our team offers polymer-based solutions that can lead to new cancer treatment options. What are some examples?
3DProSeed Hydrogel Well Plates
As mentioned previously, polymeric hydrogels are ideally suited for creating organotypic 3D cell cultures. Ectica was recently mentioned in the Nature Reviews Methods Primers entitled Engineered hydrogels for mechanobiology by Blache et al. (2022). The systems offered by Ectica are specifically designed to be used exactly as standard polystyrene tools and on the standard laboratory instruments, primarily for high quality microscopy. The 3DProSeed line consists of a series of individual pre-assembled hydrogel wells in 180 microns thin glass-bottom plates. The hydrogels are made of state-of-the-art poly(ethylene glycol) or PEG bioconjugates. Ectica has developed strong expertise in the field of PEG bioconjugation beyond the research lab-scale. A synthetic PEG backbone is conjugated to a library of biomolecules (peptides or protein fragments) to achieve specific bio functionalities and instructions for cell growth.
Screening plates containing these hydrogels are ready to be seeded upon arrival.
The wells have been engineered for pipetting, and no preliminary setup will be required. In addition, the hydrogels can be delivered with pre-tested cells to build a tumor microenvironment (StromaLine).
The 3D ProSeed StromaLine Collection
Our StromaLine Hydrogel platforms are specifically designed to analyse the interaction between the stroma and tumours. Note that there are several options to choose from within this selection. The line of pre-developed stromal cell culture models offered by Ectica includes:
Cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs): pancreatic, melanoma and lung
Mesenchymal stromal cell matrices (bone marrow)
Bone marrow endothelial vascular niche
Glial and nervous system stroma synthetic hydrogels
Once again, each plate consists of 96 wells, but the customers can request an arbitrary number of samples (wells) to conduct their studies; no assembly steps will be required. Cells can be delivered cryopreserved in a kit or already pre-seeded and growing in a plate thanks to great innovation in transportable living cell incubators by Cellbox Solutions.
The primary intention of our StromaLine series is to provide researchers with a toolbox of easy-to-establish tumor-stroma cultures in a synthetic environment. This technology also supports multiple seeding sessions, which is important when developing more than one culture model (co-cultures). Thanks to the synthetic nature of this environment, soluble and deposited proteins identified in the hydrogel can be considered endogenous and not background noise carried-over from the animal extraction process.
Your Solution for Animal-Free Synthetic 3D Hydrogels
The team at Ectica always aims to remain one step ahead of industry trends. This is why we take pride in the ability to offer a range of animal-free hydrogels. Thus, researchers can obtain greater levels of accuracy and efficiency while streamlining laboratory workflows. Once again, some of the main benefits of this technology include the following:
Compatibility with in-house instrumentation and extended working connections with manufacturers of high-content imaging systems
No pre-assembly requirement
Superior levels of imaging quality
The use of ANSI-certified dimensions.
Enhanced penetration of seeded cells
All hydrogels are manufactured within ISO Level 7-5 clean rooms.
This technology results from a collaboration between ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich. Therefore, nothing is left to chance in terms of efficacy and quality control.
Would you like to learn more about our line of animal-free hydrogels? Do you have additional questions in regard to their technical applications? If so, a hydrogel manufacturer will be pleased to speak further. Do not hesitate to contact us directly or schedule a video call.
The future of cancer research is here today, and Ectica will continue providing cutting-edge solutions.