Science 6 min read

Dutch Cell Culture Contamination Renders Six-decades Worth of Studies False

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Radboud University researchers discovered cell culture contamination that may have gone back all the way to 1955, rendering decades worth of studies false.

A very recent study suggests that thousands of published scientific studies could be invalid because of contaminated cells.

According to researchers from the Radboud University in the Netherlands, over 30,000 scientific studies that have been published could potentially be flawed due to contaminated cells. The report revealed that the 451 cell cultures used in thousands of these experiments were contaminated.

It appears that many of the researchers compromised their works by using misidentified cell lines. The lab cell cultures were allegedly contaminated by so-called “immortal cells“–originally taken from a cancer patient who died in the 1950s.

Due to the severity of the issue, Radboud researchers are warning a large part of the biomedical science community that the flawed data could have led authorities to approve numerous ineffective treatments erroneously.

The origin of some of the contaminated cells was traced all the way back to 1955–that’s over six decades of laboratory usage.

Over 30,000 #scientificstudies are said to be affected by contaminated cells!Click To Tweet

“We researched what happened to scientific publications about misidentified cell lines from 1955 on,” Willen Halffman, a researcher from the RU explained. “Many of these still list the wrong cells online and are often cited by other authors. After an extensive literary study, we believe this involves some 33,000 publications. That means there are more than 30,000 scientific articles online that are reporting on the wrong cells.”

It makes matters worse that the cells are still being used in different research environments up to this day. The researchers are now appealing to the medical community to give the matter some serious attention.

Contaminated Cells: How it Happened

With the discovery of the contaminated cells, the underlying question now is: what is its exact effect on medical studies?

The problem may sound simple and some might even think that it could just be corrected by merely eliminating the infected cells. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Since the origin of the cells was traced back to 1950s, we’re talking here of thousands of treatment studies and medical research projects that could have produced WRONG results.

It’s so serious that a researcher could have been deceived into believing that he’s studying cell samples from, for instance, lungs, when in fact, the cells were from the liver. Or, mice cells could have been thought to be human cells or vice versa.

If that’s not enough, the cell cultures could potentially be something else entirely!

Sample of contaminated cells
Sample image of contaminated cells | Green University of Al Qasim |

This makes every scientific study ever made using the contaminated cells wrong and unreliable. Serge Horbach, another researcher from Radboud, said:

“Most scientists don’t intentionally publish findings on the wrong cells. It’s an honest mistake. The more concerning problem is that the research data is potentially invalid and impossible to reproduce. What’s even scarier is that we’ve known about these wrongly identified cells for half a century, yet many researchers aren’t aware of this. New articles are published every week about misidentified cells.”

The culprit according to the study: the famous HeLa cells.

The Culprit: HeLa Cells

HeLa cell is a cell type in the immortal cell line that has been used in many scientific research studies across the globe for decades. It is considered as the oldest and the most commonly used human cell line.

HeLa was originally derived from the cervical cancer cells acquired from Henrietta Lacks, a patient who died of cancer in 1951.

George Otto Grey, the cell biologist who discovered HeLa cells
George Otto Grey, the cell biologist who discovered HeLa cells | Wikipedia |

Cell biologist George Otto Grey found that the HeLa cells could be kept alive. He was able to isolate one specific cell, culture, and multiply it, then from it, he developed a new cell line.

The cell line was then labeled using the first two letters of the patient’s first and last name, HeLa.

Reports claimed that the cells were taken without the knowledge of Lacks, a case that was emphasized in the book and TV film of the same title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Since its discovery, HeLa has been used in many biomedical studies around the world. Unfortunately, the famous cell line has long been contaminating other cell cultures for many years now.

Halffman and Horbach also confirmed that the contaminated cells were not limited to HeLa alone, but was also observed in other immortal cell lines.

Further investigation into the matter confirmed that over 451 cell lines were completely taken over by other cells. Apparently leading to a massive chunk of cell cultures being mislabeled.

How HeLa possibly contaminated other cell cultures
How HeLa possibly contaminated other cell cultures | Radboud University |

The discovery of the contaminated cells could affect not just the scientific studies, but the reputation of the researchers and cell distribution centers behind the studies as well.

“Employees at these centers recognize the problem but claim no one will listen to them. They’re angry,” says Halffman.  “Sometimes it involves semi-private companies that refuse to disclose anything for fear of reputation or financial damage. The biggest factor by far is pride and fear of reputation damage.”

“It’s not our intention to damage anyone’s reputation with this publication. It’s about the overarching problem: what are we going to do about the mistakes that have been made? That’s all we want to determine.

One solution would be to put a disclaimer on all 30,000 publications explaining that they report on the wrong cell line. It would then be up to readers to decide whether it’s a problem or not because sometimes it really doesn’t matter. Basically, we want to caution people to be careful with the interpretation of results. Then again, labeling problematic papers also takes time and money,” the duo went on to say.

In your opinion, what should be the best course of action to address the problem caused by the contaminated cells to thousands of published scientific papers? Who should be held accountable for this mishap? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Rechelle is the current Managing Editor of Edgy. She's an experienced SEO content writer, researcher, social media manager, and visual artist. She enjoys traveling and spending time anywhere near the sea with her family and friends.

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