Courtesy of a link at Vox's place, I came across this very troubling article.
Researchers warn that large parts of biomedical science could be invalid due to a cascading history of flawed data in a systemic failure going back decades.
A new investigation reveals more than 30,000 published scientific studies could be compromised by their use of misidentified cell lines, owing to so-called immortal cells contaminating other research cultures in the lab.
The problem is as serious as it is simple: researchers studying lung cancer publish a new paper, only it turns out the tissue they were actually using in the lab were liver cells. Or what they thought were human cells were mice cells, or vice versa, or something else entirely.
If you think that sounds bad, you're right, as it means the findings of each piece of affected research may be flawed, and could even be completely unreliable.
. . .
Serge Horbach from Radboud University in the Netherlands ... and fellow researcher Willem Halffman wanted to know how extensive the phenomenon of misidentified cell lines really was, so they searched for evidence of what they call "contaminated" scientific literature.
Using the research database Web of Science, they looked for scientific articles based on any of the known misidentified cell lines as listed by the International Cell Line Authentication Committee's (ICLAC) Register of Misidentified Cell Lines.
There are currently 451 cell lines on this list, and they're not what you think they are – having been contaminated by other kinds of cells at some point in scientific history. Worse still, they've been unwittingly used in published laboratory research going as far back as the 1950s.
"After an extensive literary study, we believe this involves some 33,000 publications," Halffman explains.
"That means there are more than 30,000 scientific articles online that are reporting on the wrong cells."
There's more at the link.
This has enormous implications for medical research. For example, if the FDA approves a new drug to treat a certain illness, and it turns out that the drug was tested on the wrong cells, its usefulness may be overstated at best - perhaps even overturned entirely. Furthermore, our understanding of certain diseases, like some types of cancer or tumors, might be completely wrong. Doctors and scientists may have to revisit some issues from the ground up, repeating all the flawed research using cell lines that are proven to be correct - a massive, perhaps unsupportable expense.
The potential lawsuits stemming from this might be mind-boggling in their complexity. I suspect medical malpractice lawyers are, right now, setting up urgent conference calls and preparing advertisements. As far as they're concerned, this might just be bonanza time.