Cancer cell lines are often used in laboratory experiments as models of tumors, although they can have substantially different genetic and epigenetic profiles compared to tumors. We have developed a general computational method, TumorComparer, to systematically quantify similarities and differences between tumor material when detailed genetic and molecular profiles are available. The comparisons can be flexibly tailored to a particular biological question by placing a higher weight on functional alterations of interest (weighted similarity). In a first pan-cancer application, we have compared 260 cell lines from the Cancer Cell Line Encyclopaedia (CCLE) and 1914 tumors of six different cancer types from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), using weights to emphasize genomic alterations that frequently recur in tumors. We report the potential suitability of particular cell lines as tumor models and identify apparently unsuitable outlier cell lines, some of which are in wide use, for each of the six cancer types. In future, this weighted similarity method may be generalized for use in a clinical setting to compare patient profiles consisting of genomic patterns combined with clinical attributes, such as diagnosis, treatment and response to therapy.
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