Do research cell lines mutate?

07 November 2010


Dear Chris and the gang, I'm a junior member of a lab here in Cambridge and work on breast cancer. We use DNA, proteins and RNA which are isolated from immortalised breast cancer cell lines, some of which have outlived their cancer-suffering donors by decades. My question is how can these cells remain genetically comparable within the cell line over such a long period of time, when cancer cells are notoriously prone to mutation? If the cells became very genetically different from the original tumour then surely using them for research would be pointless and my days in the lab have been wasted!?!??!!! Callum


We put this question to Professor Robert Weinberg:

Robert - The more we learn about cancer cells that are grown in the petri dish, outside of the body of a mouse or human, the more we appreciate that with the passage of time, they become less and less representative of the cancer cells that are in the body of a cancer patient. As a consequence, one has to devise various kinds of new cancer cell lines that more closely approximate the cancer cells inside the body of a patient.

Kat - And do we have to have more effective animal models that better reflect real tumours?

Robert - Yes, indeed. Ultimately, the most effective way of modelling cancer is to trigger a tumour that arises spontaneously within a mouse for example and studying the way that tumour develops and grows within the mouse, that much more closely recapitulates the growth of tumour, than does for example, a human cancer cell line that is implanted in a mouse and grows and forms a tumour there.

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