Lung cancer cell lines: Useless artifacts or invaluable tools for medical science?

Lung Cancer. 2010 Jun;68(3):309-18. doi: 10.1016/j.lungcan.2009.12.005. Epub 2010 Jan 15.


Multiple cell lines (estimated at 300-400) have been established from human small cell (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC). These cell lines have been widely dispersed to and used by the scientific community worldwide, with over 8000 citations resulting from their study. However, there remains considerable skepticism on the part of the scientific community as to the validity of research resulting from their use. These questions center around the genomic instability of cultured cells, lack of differentiation of cultured cells and absence of stromal-vascular-inflammatory cell compartments. In this report we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the use of cell lines, address the issues of instability and lack of differentiation. Perhaps the most important finding is that every important, recurrent genetic and epigenetic change including gene mutations, deletions, amplifications, translocations and methylation-induced gene silencing found in tumors has been identified in cell lines and vice versa. These "driver mutations" represented in cell lines offer opportunities for biological characterization and application to translational research. Another potential shortcoming of cell lines is the difficulty of studying multistage pathogenesis in vitro. To overcome this problem, we have developed cultures from central and peripheral airways that serve as models for the multistage pathogenesis of tumors arising in these two very different compartments. Finally the issue of cell line contamination must be addressed and safeguarded against. A full understanding of the advantages and shortcomings of cell lines is required for the investigator to derive the maximum benefit from their use.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung / pathology*
  • Carcinoma, Small Cell / pathology*
  • Cell Culture Techniques
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cell Line, Tumor*
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic
  • Genomic Instability
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / pathology*
  • Translational Research, Biomedical