Can you imagine how it would feel to be working on a very important project for months, only to find that the entire basis for this project was wrong? This has happened to countless researchers trying to potentially understand a certain type of cell or even find cures for cancer. All of these experiments have wasted large sums of funding and gone horribly wrong all due to a resilient and menacing cell.
HeLa, an immortal and rapidly proliferating cervical cancer cell, seems to be the biomedical rash that just won’t go away. These “rapacious weeds in the world of biomedical research” were a godsend for those looking to study cervical cancer, but to everyone else they were a nightmare. Since HeLa multiply so quickly, they also spread rapidly. Because of this, any slight breach in hygiene standards could mean that your research cells could be contaminated and outnumbered by HeLa cells. Most researchers would not realize that their cells had been “replaced” with HeLa and would go on with research as usual. This led to more than 7000 falsified papers published, where HeLa was the accidental test subject as opposed to the target cell. This was estimated to waste $700 million. In fact, a study in 2007 estimated that between 18 and 36 percent of cell experiments use misidentified cells. Those may not sound like big numbers but this amounts to tens of thousands of studies.
After reading this chapter of Rigor Mortis, I was prompted to do some research of my own. In this scientific expedition I came across a paper by Marc Lacroix with the title “Persistent use of “false cell lines”. The paper does not center around HeLa cells, but the line is mentioned quite often. “From HeLa and its multiple identities, to MDA-MB-435, erroneously and widely used as breast cancer cells, the history of cancer cell lines is rich in misidentification and cross-contamination events.” Begins the abstract of this paper. “Despite the fact that these problems were regularly signaled during the last decades, many actors of research still seem to ignore them.” The rest of the paper proceeds to prove the claims made in the abstract. In Lacroix’s paper, he presents a chart entitled “Nonexhaustive list of Misidentified or cross-Contaminated Cell Lines That have Been Cited During the First Semester of 2007 by Scientists Apparently not Aware of their Exact Identity” The chart gives example of thirty instances where a cell line was misidentified and the imposter cell was used in research. Eleven of the thirty times, the imposter cell was a line of HeLa cells. Link to the paper
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