Reproducible scientific research through identifiable resources

Jan 30, 2019

Reproducible scientific research through identifiable resources

By: Anita Bandrowski


In the field of biomedical research, proclivity to erring comes in the form of inaccurate referencing of the resources used. In other terms, resources, and more specifically, cell lines, do get mislabeled and mishandled every now and then. As a result, contamination and misidentification, creeps into science. Luckily, there appears to be a way around this fallible nature of ours - the scientific community puts itself in check.

What is a cell line, anyway? It is a cell culture developed from a single cell. It consists of cells with a uniform genetic makeup.

In the biological sciences, cell lines are used frequently. This is due to their ability to multiply indefinitely; multiplication implies reproducibility of research. However, one wrong step and your research data can possibly be rendered invalid. Hence, it’s essential to handle these cell lines properly and to steer clear from misidentification, contamination, and other such mishandling of the cultures.

However, testing for contamination and misidentification of cell lines is still too rare. Due to occasional improper handling of these resources, a lab could obtain contaminated cell lines and spend a small fortune pursuing research based on faulty premises.

You would think that the scientific community would find a way to deal with these issues earlier, but that’s not the case. In 2012, a group of scientists established an organization called the International Cell Line Authentication Committee (ICLAC). The goal was to create a registrar of contaminated and misidentified cell lines, as well as to increase awareness of the problem. Additionally, the organization would propose approaches to decrease the use of invalid cell lines.

Traditionally, scientific papers cited cell lines using names, HeLa, but those names don’t always point to a single cell line. That’s where an alternative solution comes into play, and it comes in the form of Research Resource Identifiers or RRIDs for short.

Research Resource Identifiers are unique identifiers that can be included in the methods section of a research paper to define the resource, such as a cell line, antibody, and so on. RRIDs have been introduced mostly because antibodies are a known source of variation in experiments, yet researchers did not include enough metadata to identify which antibody they used. Unlike the serial numbers assigned by the company, RRIDs are issued by the naming authority for a particular type of resource. In the case of cell lines, the naming authority is Cellosaurus.

One research group from the University of California, San Diego has scanned through about two million publications on PubMed in search of cell lines. Some of these cell lines were identified as problematic (on the ICLAC maintained list of problematic cells). Out of that analysis, they found that 8% of cell lines used in published papers was on the problematic list.

Luckily, the research group also analyzed some 600 papers with RRIDs, out of which they found that about 3% were on the problematic list. If true, the results suggest that the inclusion of RRIDs in papers reduces inaccurate research by more than 50%!