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Cell culture media are liquid or gel formulations that support the in vitro growth of cells. Most contain an energy source, amino acids, growth factors, inorganic salts, buffers, and vitamins. Not only do growth media act as sources of nutrients, but they also help maintain optimal pH and osmolality.

Types of culture media

Cell culture media come in two broad categories: natural and artificial media.

Natural media
Natural media are naturally occurring biological fluids, such as plasma and serum. Because they are complex and derived from living organisms, cell growth is often robust. But, because their exact compositions aren’t known, it’s often difficult to reproduce results.

Artificial or synthetic media
Artificial media preparations contain a variety of partially or fully characterized components. A wide variety of artificial media formulations exist for different uses in research and biologic production. These can be broadly categorized by whether they require addition of serum. Specialty media are serum-free.

Categories of artificial cell culture media

Types of artificial cell culture media include:

Serum-containing media
These types of media are basal media that require addition of sera products such as fetal bovine serum (FBS) or bovine calf serum (BCS). Serum, a biologically derived source of nutrients, provides hundreds of components to improve cell growth. As is true with natural media, serum is not well characterized and can vary widely from batch to batch. Also, serum can transmit specific viruses to the cell culture, which is especially an issue when cells will be used for biologic manufacturing.

Serum-free media
Also called specialty media, these formulations don’t require addition of serum products. Cell growth might not be as high as for media that contain serum, but serum-free media is better characterized and avoids the introduction of viruses carried by serum. Serum-free media can be further classified as follows, in categories that may overlap:

  • Animal-derived component-free (ADCF) do not contain any components from animal sources and are often used for industrial production.
  • Protein-free media promote superior growth of common industrial cell lines for biomanufacturing. They are often used with HEK cell culture and CHO cell culture for recombinant protein production, because the lack of external proteins simplifies large-scale purification of the target product.
  • Chemically defined (CD) media are formulated from individual components. Chemically defined media are especially favored by regulatory agencies, as they’re the most well characterized.

Specialty media FAQs

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about specialty media.

What is the difference between specialty and classical media?
Classical media require serum for use. Specialty media do not require serum for optimized cell growth.

How do you select the right specialty media?
The cell type, application, and purpose of cell culture are important points to consider when choosing a specific specialty medium. Also, consider the production process and quality testing to ensure high batch-to-batch consistency. For biomanufacturing you may have specific requirements for ADCF, protein-free, or chemically defined media, so that will factor into your decision.

What are examples of specialized applications?
Specialty media deliver exceptional quality and performance to allow use in specialized applications such as:

  • Manufacturing of recombinant proteins – in common industrial cell lines, such as those derived from HEK 293 and CHO cells
  • Vaccine production
  • Manufacture of viral vectors, such as lentiviruses
  • Gene therapy manufacturing
  • Cell therapies