Retractions of scientific papers are usually awkward, and sometimes involve investigations, firings, or scandal. In the case of Robert Mandic, a researcher at the University Hospital Giessen and Marburg in Germany, the retraction of an article he wrote for Oral Oncology didn't involve fraud or malfeasance, but "it wasn't pleasant," he tells The Wall Street Journal's Amy Dockser Marcus. Mandic's experiments and subsequent paper had been about head and neck cancer, but after the work was published, he realized that the cell lines he'd worked with had actually been cervical cancer lines. "Dr. Mandic entered a largely secret fellowship of scientists whose work has been undermined by the contamination and misidentification of cancer cell lines used in research labs around the world," Marcus writes. "Cancer experts seeking to solve the problem have found that a fifth to a third or more of cancer cell lines tested were mistakenly identified — with researchers unwittingly studying the wrong cancers, slowing progress toward new treatments and wasting precious time and money."
There have been hundreds such documented cases caused either by mislabeling, carelessness, or other mistakes, she adds. One of the biggest problems is also one of the most famous — aggressive cervical cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951, and used for decades in labs all over the country, have been known to take over other cancer cell lines, sometimes without researchers knowing, Marcus says. Further, cell lines repositories in the US, UK, Japan, and Germany have estimated that anywhere between 18 percent and 36 percent of cancer cell lines are mislabeled.
"The National Institutes of Health have, so far, not required cell line authentication as a condition of receiving federal grants," Marcus says. "One challenge is getting scientists to acknowledge their cell line is contaminated. The prevailing attitude, according to researchers, is that the other lab's cell line may be contaminated but not mine."