What are Breast Cancer Cell Lines?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2018
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Breast cancer cell lines are collections of cells in culture derived from tumors taken from patients with breast cancer. These cell cultures are used for breast cancer research and related activities, and contribute to the development of more effective and accurate treatments for breast cancer. Scientists can obtain specific cell lines by ordering them or exchanging them with other laboratories. Researchers are constantly developing new breast cancer cell lines primarily with materials from patients for the purpose of advancing breast cancer research.

Like other cell lines used in research, breast cancer cell lines start with a pathology specimen collected from a patient with breast cancer. Cells from the tumor are encouraged to grow in culture, carefully described, and the cell line is named, often with a code referencing key characteristics. Supporting documentation noting the type of cancer and providing demographic details about the patient is also generated so people know more about the origins of the cells.

Cells in culture can be kept in a state of suspension for storage and reactivated in the lab when they are needed. They are typically shipped frozen to increase the chances of survival until they reach a research facility. Then, people can thaw them out, feed them, and start cultivating them again. Breast cancer cell lines are kept tightly controlled to minimize the risks of cross-contamination with other cell lines and researchers document any irregularities they identify so contamination can be spotted before it compromises research.


These cells can be used to create genetic profiles of different kinds of breast cancers, to test proposed cancer drugs, and to explore the growth habits of breast tumors. Breast cancer cell lines are especially useful for learning about the many different forms breast cancer can take, and using this information to develop targeted therapies. Such therapies can focus on specific types of cells and may improve patient outcomes by minimizing collateral damage to healthy cells.

A 2003 study at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom warned that there is potential for genetic drift in breast cancer cell lines. The researchers found diversions from primary breast tumors in older cell lines, suggesting that the cells were changing in culture. This could have important implications for research, as a treatment effective on a given line of cells might not work in the real world if the cells have dramatically different genomes. Researchers interested in genetic drift and cell lines are exploring the issue more thoroughly.



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