Considerations for the use of SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells in neurobiology

Methods Mol Biol. 2013;1078:9-21. doi: 10.1007/978-1-62703-640-5_2.


The use of primary mammalian neurons derived from embryonic central nervous system tissue is limited by the fact that once terminally differentiated into mature neurons, the cells can no longer be propagated. Transformed neuronal-like cell lines can be used in vitro to overcome this limitation. However, several caveats exist when utilizing cells derived from malignant tumors. In this context, the popular SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cell line and its use in in vitro systems is described. Originally derived from a metastatic bone tumor biopsy, SH-SY5Y (ATCC(®) CRL-2266™) cells are a subline of the parental line SK-N-SH (ATCC(®) HTB-11™). SK-N-SH were subcloned three times; first to SH-SY, then to SH-SY5, and finally to SH-SY5Y. SH-SY5Y were deposited to the ATCC(®) in 1970 by June L. Biedler.Three important characteristics of SH-SY5Y cells should be considered when using these cells in in vitro studies. First, cultures include both adherent and floating cells, both types of which are viable. Few studies address the biological significance of the adherent versus floating phenotypes, but most reported studies utilize adherent populations and discard the floating cells during media changes. Second, early studies by Biedler's group indicated that the parental differentiated SK-N-SH cells contained two morphologically distinct phenotypes: neuroblast-like cells and epithelial-like cells (Ross et al., J Nat Cancer Inst 71:741-747, 1983). These two phenotypes may correspond to the "N" and "S" types described in later studies in SH-SY5Y by Encinas et al. (J Neurochem 75:991-1003, 2000). Cells with neuroblast-like morphology are positive for tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) and dopamine-β-hydroxylase characteristic of catecholaminergic neurons, whereas the epithelial-like counterpart cells lacked these enzymatic activities (Ross et al., J Nat Cancer Inst 71:741-747, 1983). Third, SH-SY5Y cells can be differentiated to a more mature neuron-like phenotype that is characterized by neuronal markers. There are several methods to differentiate SH-SY5Y cells and are mentioned below. Retinoic acid is the most commonly used means for differentiation and will be addressed in detail.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Culture Techniques
  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cryopreservation
  • Humans
  • Neurobiology / methods*
  • Neuroblastoma / pathology*