Biology students privy to state-of-the-art technology in cell culture

Sabrina Dawson is the biology laboratory co-ordinator where Carleton undergraduate students are using cutting-edge research. (Susan Hickman Photo)

State-of-the-art equipment and technology are allowing biology undergraduates at Carleton to perform modern tissue culture techniques that are at the forefront of research. And the hands-on practical training they are gaining in the laboratory will give them a head start in tissue culture research facilities.

This is the first year the laboratory will be working on 3-D cell culture and testing therapeutic drugs on 3-D cancer cell cultures with antineoplastic agents, putting Carleton’s biology department on the map of what’s current and relevant in cell culture today.

“Cell biology is now about molecular biology, genetics and tissue engineering,” explains biology laboratory co-ordinator Sabrina Dawson. “Tissue engineering is at the forefront of medical science, where research and clinical practice meet.”

Researchers standardly study cell models using 2-D tissue culture, but over the past five or 10 years it has become apparent that 3-D tissue culture is a far more accurate model system. Compared to the 2-D system, 3-D cell culture grows and shapes cells more effectively, thus more accurately determining their fate.

“In chemotherapy, for example, using 3-D cell culture, they have discovered a much higher concentration of drugs are needed in order to effectively kill tumour cells,” Dawson says.

In the not-too-distant future, whole organs will be cultured in the laboratory using a patient’s own stem cells, for transplant surgery, she says.

“Imagine 3-D printers,” says Dawson, “growing a replacement heart!”

With a view to the important research going on in the field, Carleton’s biology department has updated its biology/biochemistry 4201 course, which is a low-enrolment course where students can perform their own cell culture modelling and create their own solutions. The course can accommodate up to 16 students, working in pairs in two different lab sections that have biological safety cabinets.

Biology instructor Iain McKinnell explains that most universities do not offer students this experience as it requires not only specialized, expensive equipment and facilities, but also a particular knowledge and practical expertise in performing and maintaining cell culture experiments.

McKinnell says what Carleton offers, “is not only a direct hands-on experience with cell culture, but also our students at Carleton are going to be coming out with experience that is unique.”

This cutting-edge research in cell culture will apply in the long-term to a wide range of medical afflictions, McKinnell suggests, “from replacing cartilage or scar tissue to organ transplants.”

This year, the laboratory is creating tissue culture moulds to grow cells 3-D, as well as performing a drug toxicity test using the known chemotherapeutic agent Tamoxifen (used in breast cancer treatment).

Next year, says Dawson, students will be introduced to 3-D cell culture as it applies to embryonic stem cell culture. Stem cells do not grow well in 2-D, she says, nor can they grow them on a large enough scale for use in clinical trials and research.

“Eventually,” she says, “I hope students will generate whole tissues in the lab. Other universities teach their students about this in lecture. Our students are living it in the lab.”

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Susan Hickman

By Susan Hickman

For nearly four decades, journalist Susan Hickman has written about every imaginable subject for sundry newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad, as well as for CBC TV and CBC Radio. She has also managed various publications, including academic newspapers and technology magazines, and was recently commissioned to write a guide for foreign missions serving in Canada. Currently, she is working on a couple of personal memoirs.

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