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Are you sure those are the right cells?

Imagine this: you or someone you know is a graduate student, who has been working many hours in the lab on trying to find a cure for cancer. And one morning, you have a breakthrough. Finally all these years of hard work have paid off and you can see yourself authoring the next big paper in a top journal and giving talks in conferences. So far, so good. But what if you were working with the wrong cells?

This is exactly what happened to one lab, whose story is detailed here. It might come as a shock but according to this report more than one third of the cell lines stocked by the ATCC are contaminated by HeLa cells. In fact, the ATCC maintains a list of misidentified cell lines on its website and provides a note of caution against working with HeLa cells. HeLa cells are cervical cancer cells, derived from the cancerous tissue of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. These cells grow very fast, divide rapidly and contaminate many mammalian cell lines. So while you think you may be studying liver cancer, you may actually be studying cervical cancer cells.

Researchers are taking different steps to address the problem. The first step is by conducting an analysis on their cell lines to ensure that they are using the right cell type to begin with. DNA fingerprinting technology is a sure way of ensuring that the liver cells are indeed liver cells. Some journals are now requiring that the DNA analysis be a part of the data before reviewing an article. And many researchers are simply refusing to work with HeLa cells.

One concern in all of this is if this contamination has been discovered too late. For many years now, cancer cell lines have been studied in different scenarios and transferred from one lab to another. And while future studies can be clarified on the basis of DNA analysis, what about all the published research and the federal dollars used to fund them? The NIH has refused to implement any policy with respect to this cell line contamination at this point but that may very well change if too much money is being diverted towards experiments where the cells weren't right to begin with. So, will you check your cell lines today?

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