The basis for medical research is the pre-clinical research phase, which almost invariably focuses on cellular work in the laboratory. But 95% of all human cell lines used in clinical research worldwide are of European descent – adding an inherent bias to research.
The authors of a collaborative report published today in Cell hope to change that, calling for diversification of the cells used in research.
Sophie Zaaijer, of Cornell Tech, US, founded FIND Genomics, a company that aims to improve reproducible cell-based science. She says the lack of cell diversity means medicine can be skewed towards Europeans.
“Let’s take drug discovery as an example; a process that heavily relies on human cell lines for initial drug screening. If most of the cell lines used to discover new drug treatments are from people of European descent, do those drugs work equally well in non-European individuals? More and more evidence has come to light showing that, unfortunately, this is not always the case.”
The authors, from Sydney and New York, recommend active efforts to include diverse cell lines: “Considering the genetic variation within the human population is critical for providing personalized care,” says Nicolas Robine, Director of Computational Biology at the New York Genome Center, US.
“However, after finding population specific variants associated with higher incidences of disease, you need hands-on experiments in the laboratory to find a cure. Using representative cell lines during this phase is key for progress.”
Some diseases are more common in specific communities. For example, according to the report, Ashkenazi Jewish people have a higher risk of certain genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and breast cancer. African American men have a higher rate of prostate cancer than men from other ethnic backgrounds, yet only one in ten prostate cell lines used in research is of African descent.
This absence of diverse cell lines is likely to have measurable impacts, effectively blinding researchers to potential clinical breakthroughs that may be particularly effective for treating people who are not of European descent.
“We explain in our report how the lack of diversity had slipped into biomedical research unconsciously yet systematically,” says Zaaijer.
Most of the cell lines commonly used in research today were sourced in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, there has often been implicit distrust of the medical establishment among minority communities, based on past breaches of trust and the historic use of samples without consent.
“Now the time has come to correct this inequity,” Zaaijer says.
The authors also recommend scaling up technology design to make obtaining and managing diverse cell lines more feasible.
“We saw an urgent need for tools to make organising, collaborating and tracking cell lines easy,” Zaaijer says. To address that need, FIND Genomics developed a software platform specially designed for cell culture, called FIND Cell, that integrates daily cell tracking and management with bioinformatics analysis.
“FIND Cell can help to scale up inclusive biomedical experimental design.”
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Amalyah Hart has a BA (Hons) in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and an MA in Journalism from the University of Melbourne.
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