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Open Access Correspondence

Immortalized cells and one oncogene in malignant transformation: old insights on new explanation

Vadym M Kavsan*, Anton V Iershov and Olena V Balynska

Author affiliations

Department of Biosynthesis of Nucleic Acids, Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, 150 Zabolotnogo Street, 03680 Kyiv, Ukraine

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Citation and License

BMC Cell Biology 2011, 12:23  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-12-23

Published: 23 May 2011



Nearly thirty years ago, it was first shown that malignant transformation with single oncogene necessarily requires the immortal state of the cell. From that time this thesis for the cells of human origin was not disproved. The basic point which we want to focus on by this short communication is the correct interpretation of the results obtained on the widely used human embryonic kidney 293 (HEK293) cells.


Intensive literature analysis revealed an increasing number of recent studies discovering new oncogenes with non-overlapping functions. Since the 1970s, dozens of oncogenes have been identified in human cancer. Cultured cell lines are often used as model systems in these experiments. In some investigations the results obtained on such cells are interpreted by the authors as a malignant transformation of normal animal or even normal human cells (as for example with HEK293 cells). However, when a cell line gains the ability to undergo continuous cell division, the cells are not normal any more, they are immortalized cells. Nevertheless, the authors consider these cells as normal human ones, what is basically incorrect. Moreover, it was early demonstrated that the widely used human embryonic kidney 293 (HEK293) cells have a relationship to neurons.


Thus, the experiments with established cell lines reinforce the notion that immortality is an essential requirement for malignant transformation that cooperates with other oncogenic changes to program the neoplastic state and substances under such investigation should be interpreted as factors which do not malignantly transform normal cells alone, but possess the ability to enhance the tumorigenic potential of already immortalized cells.