70 years ago history was made when a Johns Hopkins biologist isolated a patient’s cells and put them in a petri dish, creating the world’s first so-called “cell line” capable of continuously renewing itself in an artificial culture.
By enabling scientists to test their treatments on human cells rather than actual humans, cell lines have become the foundation for virtually all modern biomedical research and drug discovery. The roughly twenty tons of cell lines that have been developed in the last few decades have made advances possible in cancer research, stem-cell therapy and even CRISPR gene-editing.
However, along the way scientists haven’t been especially tidy in terms of properly labeling cell lines: by some measures, upwards of a third of them are misidentified.
This issue has major implications for clinical trials: if a researcher is testing a new chemo treatment on a liver-cancer cell line and mistakenly uses a pancreatic cell line, that trial is completely useless. If the researcher doesn’t recognize that it’s the wrong cell line, it could also result in them publishing incorrect data that leads future scientists even further astray.
Molecular biologist Sophie Zaaijer, a former postdoc at Cornell Tech in New York City, is perplexed that cell lines aren’t catalogued with the same level of detail as a flat-screen TV from a big-box store.
“Amazon meticulously follows your package every step of the way,” says Zaaijer. “Why don’t we do the same for cells?”
That question was the inspiration for FIND Genomics, Zaaijer’s start-up with computational biologist Tyler Joseph. Zaaijer just co-authored a paper in Nature Biotechnology demonstrating a tool for researchers to easily digitize, organize and verify information about their cell lines.
“It’s heartbreaking when you hear the individual stories of researchers who had to throw away years of work because they unknowingly received an incorrect cell line from a collaborating lab a decade earlier,” says Joseph.
User studies showed that the new tool saves researchers time, while also reducing the risk of experimental failure. It’s now used by scientists at more than a dozen different universities.
In the paper the authors argue that there should be a more universal method for maintaining and documenting the use of cell lines.
“Although it’s generally accepted that cell lines in culture can become dissimilar to their tissue of origin, it would be a major benefit to biomedical research to establish a comprehensive system to make cell line management more similar between labs,” says Sandra Vogt, a cancer researcher and PhD candidate at New York University who was part of the beta-tester team.
Zaaijer spun the company out of Cornell Tech last year through the Runway Startup Postdocs program, and has since raised capital to develop the technical product that was recently launched. The team collaborated on the platform with scientists from both academic and industry, including the New York Genome Center.
“Cornell Tech really was the main incubator for FIND Genomics and its whole business model,” Zaaijer says. “It’s what gave us the momentum and resources to realize the feasibility of our big idea.”
The team’s tool is available on their website for academic laboratories to use.