Many Technology Transfer Offices and researchers choose to safeguard and license their cell lines by depositing them with a cell line repository. However, many are unaware of the full range of services these repositories offer or what the depositing process actually involves.

We talked with Peter Thraves, a Senior scientist at the ECACC repository to find out what working in a cell line repository is like, as well as the challenges and the surprises:

How did you end up working for a cell line repository?

Having obtained a Ph.D. from the University of London, I began postdoctoral work at Georgetown University, Washington D.C, USA in cancer research with an emphasis on radiation biology, DNA repair, in vitro models for carcinogenesis and cancer biology.  After 20 years I decided to return to the UK for family reasons and a change of lifestyle. I started working for a start-up biotech company developing cell-based tumour vaccines, before choosing to move into something new. I knew former colleagues at Georgetown University who went on to work at the American Tissue Culture Collection (ATCC) so I was aware of what working at repositories involved.  I saw that the role at ECACC was similar to previous experience and decided to apply. That was 15 years ago!

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The thing I enjoy most about my role is that I get to keep up-to-date with the current scientific trends in mammalian cell biology. A major part of my role involves reviewing scientific literature to identify any cell-based systems we can add to our repository. I also enjoy the challenge of acquiring and growing new cell-based reagents that have never been grown at ECACC before, for example, induced pluripotent stem cells and organoid cultures. These cultures require frequent feeding and monitoring to create and frozen stock. They can be challenging.  I also enjoy presenting at ECACC’s training courses and deliver the message about Good Cell Culture Practice (GCCP).

What’s the most interesting reagent you’ve had deposited?

I find all the new types of cell lines we get deposited at ECACC interesting, but the few that have really stood-out to me are:

MT2 and MT4 leukaemia cell lines – These cell lines came from HIV positive donors and were classified as class 3 reagents. This meant that they could only be stored or used at a class 3 lab and required a lot of careful handling due to biosafety precautions.

SNL 76/7 – This cell line came from an American lab, through Cambridge University. This cell line is special as it expresses recombinant leukaemia inhibitory factor (LIF) – and this means it can be used as a feeder layer for culturing stem cells.  I’m always surprised by which cell lines prove popular. This particular cell line proved very popular with a lot of sales in Japan. It is still in demand.

How has the type of cell lines the repository receives changed over time?

Previously we were receiving a lot of cancer cell lines from researchers and institutes, but this changed over time to include more cell lines that relate to basic biology or neurobiology. The requests we receive from those wanting to purchase cell lines has also changed to focus more on primary cultures – those cells that are closer to the original tissues. We are often asked for pairs of cells from the same donor – one typical of the non-diseased state normal and one from the disease e.g. cancer. This would allow the investigator to directly compare the two cell lines. The ECACC repository contains about a 70/30 split between cell lines from human donors and other species.

How can the process of submitting cells lines be made quicker and easier?

In the short term there are two very simple changes that could be made to speed up the process of submitting cell lines:

Improving the labelling of the cell lines. Sometimes I need to be a crossword magician to work out the identity of the cell line from the label on the frozen ampoule. This can often take longer than the actual deposit process as every Depositor has a different naming system. Knowing if the cell line has a proof of provenance apart from that described in a research paper is also useful. For example, have the cell lines that are being sent, actually been tested for identity and their function as claimed?

Providing easier access to supplementary information – Having easier access to this material helps me to create a better description of the cell line and improves the promotional copy for the cell lines that is posted onto ECACC’s website. Having contact details for researchers or the individual who is submitting the cell line, particularly if they are planning on leaving the university or institute would be useful so that we can clarify any outstanding details as needed.

What are the common issues or problems you see in the cell lines you receive?

We’re fortunate that the quality of the cell lines we receive is mostly good. I think the failure rate of cell lines is around 12% currently. Our Quality Control tests occur quite early in the depositing process, so we don’t waste too much time on cell lines that have been contaminated, mis-identified or are of poor quality.

In terms of contamination – microbiological contamination is quite easily detected. There is also the possibility of mycoplasma contamination which is harder to spot. We actively test for it. We perform a PCR test as early as possible to identify this, if present. We are currently developing the use of DNA cards, before the cells are even sent to the repository.

What one thing do you wish people knew when they submitted cell lines to ECACC?

It’s quite a complex process to bankand deposit the cell line with the ECACC repository. A lot of work is involved,that the researchers or institutes probably aren’t aware of - so, the earlier acell line is submitted the better. A lot of the cell lines we receive are over5 years old.  Depositing your cell linesas you go along, rather than waiting, means it is easier for us to findrelevant information on the cell line and to provide better promotion for thecell line on the ECACC website.

The biggest surprise for thosewanting to deposit a cell line with us, is to find out that the process isfree. We are a not-for-profit organisation. We do make a financial surpluswhich is re-invested in the Culture Collections-Public Health England. We alsofill out many of the forms for them, so the deposit process is relatively easyand straight forward. We are good at quickly responding and returning calls andemails, so the expectations of those wanting to deposit is managed.

Discover how we can support you in your reagent storage process

Many of Ximbio’s cell lines are available through ECACC and we have agreements with a number of different repositories to facilitate the storage and safeguarding of many different reagent types.