Widespread intraspecies cross-contamination of human tumor cell lines arising at source

Int J Cancer. 1999 Nov 12;83(4):555-63. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1097-0215(19991112)83:4<555::aid-ijc19>3.0.co;2-2.


We present a panoptic survey of cell line cross-contamination (CLCC) among original stocks of human cell lines, investigated using molecular genetic methods. The survey comprised 252 consecutive human cell lines, almost exclusively tumor-derived, submitted by their originators to the DSMZ and 5 additional cell repositories (CRs), using a combination of DNA profiling (4-locus minisatellite and multilocus microsatellite probes) and molecular cytogenetics, exploiting an interactive database (http://www.dsmz.de/). Widespread high levels of cross-contaminants (CCs) were uncovered, affecting 45 cell lines (18%) supplied by 27 of 93 originators (29%). Unlike previous reports, most CCs (42/45) occurred intraspecies, a discrepancy attributable to improved detection of the more insidious intraspecies CCs afforded by molecular methods. The most prolific CCs were classic tumor cell lines, the numbers of CCs they caused being as follows: HeLa (n = 11), T-24 (n = 4), SK-HEP-1 (n = 4), U-937 (n = 4) and HT-29 (n = 3). All 5 supposed instances of spontaneous immortalization of normal cells were spurious, due to CLCC, including ECV304, the most cited human endothelial cell line. Although high, our figure for CCs at the source sets a lower limit only as (i) many older tumor cell lines were unavailable for comparison and (ii) circulating cell lines are often obtained indirectly, rather than via originators or CRs. The misidentified cell lines reported here have already been unwittingly used in several hundreds of potentially misleading reports, including use as inappropriate tumor models and subclones masquerading as independent replicates. We believe these findings indicate a grave and chronic problem demanding radical measures, to include extra controls over cell line authentication, provenance and availability.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Culture Techniques / standards*
  • Cytogenetic Analysis
  • DNA Fingerprinting
  • Humans
  • Karyotyping
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Polymorphism, Restriction Fragment Length
  • Quality Control
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured