As many as one-third of cancer cell lines used by scientists around the world could be wrongly labeled, undermining huge amounts of medical research, reports the Wall Street Journal. For basic biology research, the problem is probably not so serious. But for the study of specific cancers and treatment, wrongly labeled cell lines means money and resources are often completely wasted. (The article begins with an anecdote from a scientist who had to pull his paper on head and neck cancer, because he discovered the cells he was working on were actually from cervical cancer.) Worse, critics say, is the possibility that misidentified cell lines could have led to drugs that are inappropriate for some types of cancer.
It's a problem that has been known since the 1960s, but largely ignored by scientists afraid the discovery might invalidate their research and hurt their careers. It seems to stem from basic carelessness: Cells are drawn from tumors, grown in labs, and stored for years in freezers, where the mixup often occurs. The National Center for Biotechnology Information is trying to clean up the mess and establish new standards, but the NIH, for instance, still does not require authentification of cell lines when it doles out grant money. "Screaming and shouting, it doesn't do any good," says one pathologist. "The whole ethos of science is to strive for the truth and produce a balanced argument about the evidence. Yet, all this crap is being produced."