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Inside the Lab Regulation and standards, Genetics and epigenetics, Laboratory management, Quality assurance and quality control, Omics

Clamping Down on Mistaken Identity

Errors with misidentification and contamination of samples and cell lines is a big problem and it’s a widely known one too. Not only does it affect data integrity and scientific reproducibility, but outside of research, it could result in a misdiagnosis; a worrying consequence that all pathologists would wish to avoid at all costs. In spite of this, not enough is being done to avoid it, in particular in research labs. Some journal publishers, however, believe it’s time to force an end to the “ignorance is bliss” approach and tackle the problem head on.

Nature and Nature research journals, for example, from May onwards will ask authors of submitted manuscripts to check that “they are not working on cells known to have been misidentified or cross-contaminated, and will ask them to provide more details about the source and testing of their cell lines,” (1). Some specialist journals, such as the International Journal of Cancer, are also systematically asking for authentication.

Nature journals started to ask the question back in 2013; of those cell-line based papers published, only 10 percent of authors said they had authenticated the cell line and, worryingly, almost one-third said the cell lines had been gifted from another laboratory.

Addressing this issue might seem obvious, but until recently, tests to check the contents of cell lines were complex and time-consuming. In a bid to address this, scientists at biotech firm Genentech have created a cheap and efficient way to identify cell lines (2). Using standard tests to distinguish cells by short, repeated DNA sequences, the team gathered profiles for cell lines from seven databases and created a clean list of existing cell lines after cross-referencing all profiles (they narrowed a collection of 8,577 DNA profiles to 2,787 unique ones). The firm has uploaded its data to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, and it’s also working to make it more widely available. They also compared variations in single nucleotides of DNA in order to profile cell lines. In a Nature press release (3), Jon Lorsch, head of the US National Institute of General Medical Sciences says, “The fact that Genentech has chosen to invest in dealing with this problem gives a clear signal that it needs to be dealt with.”

More needs to be done to highlight the extent of this issue though. The Global Biological Standards Institute, for example, has launched a social media campaign, #authenticate, to publicize the problem of misidentified cell lines. And in next month’s issue, we speak with members of a working group of the European Federation of clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine (EFLM) about the work that they are doing to eliminate preanalytical sample errors, so look out for it in the May issue of The Pathologist

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  1. Editorial, “Announcement: time to tackle cells’ mistaken identity”, Nature 520, 264 (2015).
  2. M Yu, et al., “A resource for cell line authentication, annotation and quality control,” Nature, 520, 307–311 (2015). PMID: 25877200.
  3. Nature News, “Biotech firm announces fast test to unmask imposter cell lines”, Accessed April 17, 2015.
About the Author
Fedra Pavlou

After graduating with a pharmacology degree, I began my career in scientific publishing and communications. Now with more than 16 years of experience in this field, my career has seen me heading up editorial and writing teams at Datamonitor, Advanstar and KnowledgePoint360 group. My past experiences have taught me something very important – that you have to enjoy working with, and have respect for your colleagues. It’s this that drew me to Texere where I now work with old colleagues and new. Though we are a hugely diverse team, we share several things in common – a real desire to work hard to succeed, to be the best at what we do, never to settle for second best, and to have fun while we do it. I am now honored to serve as Editor of The Pathologist and Editorial Director of Texere Publishing.

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