For 50 years, scientists have ignored widespread cell contamination, compromising medical research. Why are they so slow to fix it?
Jill Neimark in Discover:
In the field of thyroid cancer, 58-year-old Kenneth Ain is a star. As director of the thyroid oncology program at the University of Kentucky at Lexington, Ain has one of the largest single-physician thyroid cancer practices in the country and more than 70 peer-reviewed publications to his name. Until recently, Ain was renowned for a highly prized repository of 18 immortal cancer cell lines, which he developed by harvesting tissue from his patients’ tumors after removal, carefully culturing them to everlasting life in vials. Laboratories around the world relied on the “Kentucky Ain Thyroid,” or KAT lines, both to gain insight into cellular changes in thyroid carcinoma and to screen drugs that might treat the disease, which strikes more than 60,000 Americans each year.
n June 2007, all that changed. Ain attended the annual Endocrine Society meeting in Toronto, where Bryan Haugen, head of the endocrinology division at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, told Ain that several of his most popular cell lines were not actually thyroid cancer. One of Haugen’s researchers discovered that many thyroid cell lines their laboratory stocked and studied were either misidentified or contaminated by other cancer cells. Those included some of Ain’s. They were now hard at work unraveling the mystery.
There was a disaster brewing — it just wasn’t yet official.
Ain was shocked, and justifiably so. Research based on such false cell lines would undermine the understanding of different cancers and possible treatments, and clutter the scientific literature with bogus conclusions.