Improving the congruity of preclinical models with cancer as it is manifested in humans is a potential way to mitigate the high attrition rate of new cancer therapies in the clinic. In this regard, three-dimensional (3D) tumor cultures in vitro have recently regained interest as they have been acclaimed to have higher similarity to tumors in vivo than to cells grown in monolayers (2D). To identify cancer functions that are active in 3D rather than in 2D cultures, we compared the transcriptional profiles (TPs) of two non-small cell lung carcinoma cell lines, NCI-H1650 and EBC-1 grown in both conditions to the TP of xenografted tumors. Because confluence, diameter or volume can hypothetically alter TPs, we made intra- and inter-culture comparisons using samples with defined dimensions. As projected by Ingenuity Pathway Analysis (IPA), a limited number of signal transduction pathways operational in vivo were better represented by 3D than by 2D cultures in vitro. Growth of 2D and 3D cultures as well as xenografts induced major changes in the TPs of these 3 modes of culturing. Alterations of transcriptional network activation that were predicted to evolve similarly during progression of 3D cultures and xenografts involved the following functions: hypoxia, proliferation, cell cycle progression, angiogenesis, cell adhesion, and interleukin activation. Direct comparison of TPs of 3D cultures and xenografts to monolayer cultures yielded up-regulation of networks involved in hypoxia, TGF and Wnt signaling as well as regulation of epithelial mesenchymal transition. Differences in TP of 2D and 3D cancer cell cultures are subject to progression of the cultures. The emulation of the predicted cell functions in vivo is therefore not only determined by the type of culture in vitro but also by the confluence or diameter of the 2D or 3D cultures, respectively. Consequently, the successful implementation of 3D models will require phenotypic characterization to verify the relevance of applying these models for drug development.