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Racially Diverse Cell Lines Needed for Precision Medicine to Reach Underrepresented Populations

Laura Joszt
A lack of diversity in cell lines used for laboratory studies means underrepresented populations and minorities might not benefit from precision medicines as quickly as people from European ancestry.
Underrepresented populations and minorities will not be able to reap the benefits of precision medicine as quickly as people from European ancestry, according to a new study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

Researchers found there is a lack of diversity among cell lines used for laboratory studies to study prostate, breast, and cervical cancers.  They looked at 15 commercial cell lines categorized based on the amount of West African, Native American, and European genetic ancestry.

"A lack of diversity is prevalent in every level of biomedicine—from the patient population in clinical trials to the donated samples for scientific investigation," Rick A. Kittles, PhD, director of the Division of Health Equities at City of Hope and senior author of the new study, said in a statement. "How can we expect to narrow the health equity canyon when our basic scientific resources—cell lines for laboratory study—is predominately from people of European ancestry? Minorities like myself are not the primary beneficiaries of most scientific innovations."

The researchers also found that while cell lines described as European ancestry were accurately labeled, those classified as African American were not always accurate and had more of a mixed genetic background. For instance, the E006AA-hT prostate cancer cell line was classified as African American but carried 92% European ancestry. This cell line is used to investigate prostate cancer health disparities. The result of the study means that there is only 1 commercially available African American prostate cancer cell line: MDA-PCa-2b.

A search of the American Type Culture Collection for cell lines from normal and malignant breast tissue found that 71% of the specimens were classified as white, and only 13% were African American. Furthermore, there was only 1 Hispanic and 1 East Indian sample.

Making precision medicine available to all people means having a diverse sample of biospecimens with accurately classified genetic ancestry, Kittles said.

“An important aspect of precision medicine is being able to leverage the genetic background of individuals for disease risk assessment, stratification, prognosis and outcome,” he said. “Here we show that what many investigators thought were classic samples from racially defined individuals wasn't the case.”


Hooker SE, Woods-Burnham L, Bathina M, et al. Genetic ancestry analysis reveals misclassification of commonly used cancer cell lines [published online February 20, 2019]. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. doi: 0.1158/1055-9965.EPI-18-1132.

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