Cell culture, where prokaryotic or eukaryotic cells are grown under controlled conditions, is a commonly used laboratory technique. Large scale mammalian cell culture is widely used in biotechnology, in particular for the production of vaccines, proteins, enzymes, antibodies and hormones. Cell culture is also used in many fields of research, in particular in the pharmaceutical field, where cells are used as models to study many diseases such as cancer or heart disease. Cells are used in target identification and validation, cell-based assays for high-throughput screening, permeability assays and production of therapeutic proteins. Plant cells are also cultured to study biological processes, for genetic studies, or to produce secondary products such as recombinant proteins.
One can either grow cells isolated from tissue (primary cells) or use cells from an established, immortalized cell line. Primary cells, except if they are derived from tumor tissue, only have a limited lifespan, while immortalized cell lines can proliferate indefinitely. It is also possible to fuse primary cells with an immortalized cell line to produce hybridomas. This technique is used to produce monoclonal antibodies. The use of stem cells in medicine and research is becoming increasingly popular.
Cells are grown in specific growth medium, either as a suspension or as adherent cultures (monolayer). The media have to be selected specifically for the type of cells used. Cell culture medium typically contains amino acids, glucose, vitamins, inorganic salts, lipids and may contain animal serum, growth factors, hormones, antibiotics, antioxidants and other components. Types of media include serum based, serum free, animal free, and protein free or chemically defined. Supplements, such as calf serum, may be added. An incubator is used in order to maintain the appropriate conditions for cell growth, such as a specific temperature and gas mixture (typically, 37°C, 5% CO2
for mammalian cells).
In order to keep cells healthy and growing, they need to have sufficient nutrients available, therefore the media needs to be replenished on a regular basis. In addition, when adherent cell lines reach confluency (cover all the surface area available) they need to be sub-cultured in order to continue to grow. Great care must be taken in order to prevent any risk of cell contamination. Contamination may be chemical (due to contamination of the chemicals, the water, or the additives used to prepare the media, or the plasticware used) or biological (bacteria, mold, yeast, mycoplasma, viruses, protozoa, etc.)
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