As any modern cancer researcher knows, great discoveries often start in a beaker. Since 1959, scientists have used solutions—most often a bright red mixture of sugar, salts, vitamins and amino acids—to grow human and animal cells for testing new treatments. However, a recent report in The Atlantic asks: Are these solutions an accurate facsimile of cell biology? And if not, what can we do to make them better?

Writer Ed Yong specifically calls out Eagle’s minimal essential medium (EMEM), a solution used in biological research for nearly six decades, and its more concentrated variant Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle’s Medium (DMEM). Both solutions are still frequently used by researchers to study animal cells in the context of viruses or cancer.

But in recent years, many scientists have started realizing that these media, or solutions, could be skewing their results. As Yong writes, “It’s as if they had spent decades studying the health of people who had only ever been given rations to eat.” That’s huge, say experts, considering that nearly 90 percent of papers in today’s cancer research are using the same two or three commercially available generic media for testing.

In response, many researchers have begun to make their own custom media to better reflect human chemical profiles, and in the process are discovering that the medium used can have a big impact on research results.

For example, a researcher who created his own solution found that cancer cells behave far more like they would in actual tumors—without the “weird” behaviors triggered by EMEM and its counterparts. In another study using a custom solution, researchers found that cancer cells were actually much less sensitive to the chemotherapy drug fluorouracil than those tested in the stock medium.

The article ends by calling for far more types of media to be commercialized for more accurate, responsive cancer research results. To read the full article, click here.