Genetic profiling reveals an alarming rate of cross-contamination among human cell lines used in China

FASEB J. 2015 Oct;29(10):4268-72. doi: 10.1096/fj.14-266718. Epub 2015 Jun 26.


Cell lines are widely used as in vitro model systems in biologic and medical research. However, much of the research has been invalidated by the unwitting use of false cell lines. A significant proportion of the research involving human cell lines was initiated in China. Paradoxically, the cell lines used in China have never been authenticated. Here, we present a comprehensive survey of cross-contamination in 380 samples from 113 independent sources in China using short tandem repeat profiling methods. High levels of cross-contamination were uncovered (95 of 380, 25%). Notable false cell lines (e.g., KB and WISH) are still actively used under their false identity and tissue attributions. Most strikingly, 85.51% of lines established in China were misidentified (59 of 69) and accounted for over half of the misidentifications (59 of 95, 62.11%). Further, 93.22% of the contaminants in cell lines established in laboratories of China were HeLa cells or a possible hybrid of HeLa with an unknown cell line. Results from these misidentified lines have been published in thousands of potentially erroneous articles and may have distorted the findings visible to the scientific community. False lines have been used in drug screening, potentially leading to unusable or even harmful therapeutic strategies. We also noted the causes of contamination and provided suggestions for remediation.

Keywords: HeLa; STR analysis; authentication; misidentification; misuse.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / standards
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • China
  • DNA Contamination*
  • DNA, Neoplasm / chemistry
  • DNA, Neoplasm / genetics*
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Microsatellite Repeats / genetics*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA


  • DNA, Neoplasm