Enlarge / HeLa cells, long after it was apparent they were trying to take over the world. (credit: Tom Deerinck/NIH)
Normally, news involves something that is, as the name implies, new.

But this week, attention was given to a problem in biology that is anything but new.

There have been decades of warnings that researchers sometimes perform studies using cells that have been misidentified—presented as liver cells when in fact they’re derived from the spleen, for example.

As cell lines are shared and studies build on earlier work, this misidentification has the potential to cause wider problems in the scientific record.
Despite decades of warnings and the existence of a database of problematic cell lines, the problem isn’t going away, as emphasized by a study released last week.

The new analysis estimates that as much as 10 percent of the papers in the biological sciences may be influenced by cases of mistaken cellular identity.

And it’s hard to ascribe this to anything other than carelessness and overconfidence on the part of biologists.
Mistaken identity
How do you end up with the wrong cells? There are a variety of ways. Often, new cell lines are made from tumor or tissue samples.
If the sample is not 100-percent pure, there’s a chance that something other than what you expect could grow out.
In addition, some tumors can be misidentified—assumed to be lung if they’re found there, but the tumor may actually represent a metastasis of a cancer that started in some other tissue. While there are ways of identifying a cell’s source (typically, checking the battery of genes active in the cells will indicate its origin), this hasn’t been done as consistently as it should be.
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