CONTAMINATION DRAWS PUBLIC ATTENTION
Most cell culture researchers get used to a certain level of obscurity—at least as far as the morning news is concerned. The pharmaceutical industry values the data and conclusions, and the public appreciates the end results in discoveries and working treatments. But usually the day-to-day work of a cell culturist doesn’t rise to the attention of the mass media.
With the publication of a book on Henrietta Lacks in 2011, cell culturists saw their life’s work rise to the level of a Jeopardy! clue.
But when you work in certain fields, you get used to the idea that high-level attention often accompanies a negative: Something has gone wrong. And in two recent NPR pieces, cell culture contamination—and, specifically, what can go wrong—became Morning Edition-worthy.
And the HeLa cells and their complicated role in cell culturing provide a clue about why.
One Scientist’s Story
Last winter, NPR ran a pair of stories titled, “Mistaken Identities Plague Lab Work With Human Cells,” and, even more troubling, “Scientists Often Skip a Simple Test That Could Verify Their Work.” Both covered the issues around cell line cross-contamination and the role of authentication.
WHY CONTAMINATED LINES CONTINUE TO BE USED
A lack of awareness can be part of the problem, as well as longtime habits researchers may follow, such as sharing cell lines with others. But it’s important not to minimize the effect the nature of the work has on researchers. “What the article doesn’t portray is the steady, daily pressure to get results that can be published,” Bates says. “And that requires doing experiments repeatedly. You need tens or hundreds of millions of cells for each experiment, and it takes days to weeks to grow enough cells for each experiment. So every time you need to repeat an experiment because one small aspect prevented the experiment from giving you results you can interpret, it takes more weeks and months. “It’s a vicious cycle and with that amount of pressure, there aren’t too many researchers who will take the trouble to tell their professor their cells are contaminated.”
CONTAMINATION’S MANY FORMS
Cell line cross-contamination is just one form of contamination researchers face, and the complexity of the issue can make preventing any form of contamination daunting. But for many cell culture researchers, the other forms take precedence in day-to-day efforts.
So Bates cautions researchers not to forget the big picture: “For most researchers, battling bacteria or fungal contaminants that kill their cells, shutting down their research entirely for weeks or months, is a more fearsome problem, so it gets more attention.”
Unsurprisingly, preventing laboratory contamination is a significant focus of Thermo Fisher Scientific’s work, and researchers interested in learning more can readily find these resources. Thermo Fisher Scientific contributed a three-part series on the issues of contamination to Lab Manager Magazine (click to explore Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) and our blog entries have covered the many faces of cell culture contamination and the risks to today’s lab work.
Also, Thermo Fisher Scientific makes equipment and tools available that can help prevent contamination, such as specially designed biosafety cabinets, HEPA filters for CO2 incubators that can filter out mycoplasma, and ClickSeal Biocontainment lids for centrifuges.
ATTENTION IS A “GOOD THING”
Any form of contamination calls into question the hard-earned results of a researcher’s work. Bates notes, “From a big picture perspective, cell line contamination is certainly the biggest problem in cell culture research that prevents advances in understanding and better modeling biology in the body. Any attention to this problem is a good thing. It takes awareness of the problem, and ongoing, personal, daily effort to ensure not cross-contaminating one’s own cell lines. It takes not sharing cells that haven’t been verified.
“Every single person using cultured cells has to do these steps, and just verifying a cell type once doesn’t mean it won’t get contaminated later. This will be an ongoing problem that will take a very, very long time to eradicate altogether.”
As time passes, pressure ultimately may be what makes it harder for scientists to use unauthenticated cell lines. As the earlier article noted, some journals now require proof of authentication before accepting submissions. Howard Soule of the Prostate Cancer Foundation noted, during a summit, that the foundation requires authentication from the scientists it funds.
In the end, perhaps increasing public scrutiny will turn up the pressure on authentication. And eventually the morning news will find that there is no further story to be found in cell line cross-contamination.
For more on cell culture contamination and the best practices for reducing it in your lab, explore our on-demand webinar: Cell Culture Contamination: What You Don’t Know Can Cost You