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The ghosts of HeLa: How cell line misidentification contaminates the scientific literature

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  • The ghosts of HeLa: How cell line misidentification contaminates the scientific literature

    https://journals.plos.org/plosone/ar...l.pone.0186281
    Horbach SPJM, Halffman W (2017) The ghosts of HeLa: How cell line misidentification contaminates the scientific literature. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0186281. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0186281

    Abstract

    While problems with cell line misidentification have been known for decades, an unknown number of published papers remains in circulation reporting on the wrong cells without warning or correction. Here we attempt to make a conservative estimate of this ‘contaminated’ literature. We found 32,755 articles reporting on research with misidentified cells, in turn cited by an estimated half a million other papers. The contamination of the literature is not decreasing over time and is anything but restricted to countries in the periphery of global science. The decades-old and often contentious attempts to stop misidentification of cell lines have proven to be insufficient. The contamination of the literature calls for a fair and reasonable notification system, warning users and readers to interpret these papers with appropriate care.

    Introduction

    The misidentification of cell lines is a stubborn problem in the biomedical sciences, contributing to the growing concerns about errors, false conclusions and irreproducible experiments [1, 2]. As a result of mislabelled samples, cross-contaminations, or inadequate protocols, some research papers report results for lung cancer cells that turn out to be liver carcinoma, or human cell lines that turn out to be rat [3, 4]. In some cases, these errors may only marginally affect results; in others they render results meaningless [4].


    The problems with cell line misidentification [5] have been known for decades, commencing with the controversies around HeLa cells in the 1960s [610]. In spite of several alarm calls and initiatives to remedy the problem, misidentification continues to haunt biomedical research, with new announcements of large-scale cross-contaminations and widespread use of misidentified cell lines appearing even recently [1113]. Although no exact numbers are known, the extent of cell line misidentification is estimated between one fifth and one third of all cell lines [4, 14]. (Although currently only 488 or 0.6% of over 80,000 known cell lines have been reported as misidentified, most cell lines are used infrequently [15].) In addition, misidentified cell lines keep being used under their false identities long after they have been unmasked [16], while other researchers continue to build on their results. Considering the biomedical nature of research conducted on these cell lines, consequences of false findings are potentially severe and costly [17], with grants, patents and even drug trials based on misidentified cells [18]. Several case studies performed by the International Cell Line Authentication Committee (ICLAC) highlight some of the potential consequences of using misidentified cell lines [19, 20]. Especially in the last decade, the gravity of the problem has been widely acknowledged, with several calls for immediate action in journal articles [3, 12, 2123], requirements for grant applications (e.g. [24, 25]) and even an open letter to the US secretary of health [26]....

    Copyright: 2017 Horbach, Halffman. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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