Cross-contaminated cell lines could be causing us to waste millions or more on flawed research. And many scientists don't even know it.
Retractions of published work are regrettable, but they happen. Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health, highlights one involving a German researcher, Robert Mandic, who's in the business of studying head and neck cancer. Mandic's lab results were invalidated last year when he discovered that the cancer cells he'd been working on were actually descended from a cervical tumor -- not the rare head and neck cancer he thought he was studying.
The journal that initially published Mandic's paper wound up dropping the work, but not for the reason you might suspect:
The scope of Oral Oncology covers only head and neck cancers. As the findings of this paper no longer refer to a cell line that is implicated in these tumours, the paper has been retracted from the journal, since it would not have been acceptable for publication during peer-review based on the information now available.
In other words," Oransky writes, "the real reason the paper is being retracted isn't because the results were no longer valid, but that they were no longer valid for a head or neck cancer."