I don’t drink a lot of soda. It’s something that I gave up about a decade ago. Never looked back, really. But I saw a couple of threads the other morning about Pepsi that caught my eye. Specifically, the accusation that Pepsi is using human fetal tissue in its sodas. Now, like many of us, I’ve become desensitized to bizarre things on the internet, but fetus-soda? That was a new one to me.
It turns out that the hubbub has arisen because of a contract between Pepsi and a San Diego biotech company named Senomyx, which develops food additives with the goal of heightening taste so that manufacturers can decrease things like sugar, salt and MSG in their products. Senomyx screens for compounds that interact with taste receptors in much the same way that pharmaceutical companies look for compounds that interact with drug targets.
An anti-abortion group called The Children of God for Life found that during its compound screening process Senomyx sometimes employed a cell line called HEK293. The letters in the name stands for Human Embryonic Kidney. The HEK293 cell line has been around for about 40 years and has been one of the real workhorses of mammalian cell biology for decades. I thought that this should be clear, but perhaps it bears pointing out: you do not abort a fetus when using the cells.
Apparently, that’s not quite so clear because the CoGfL folks mounted an internet campaign against the soft drink maker and even went so far as to try and get an SEC injunction to block the deal with Senomyx (the SEC dismissed it).
This week however, Ralph Shortey, a state senator from Oklahoma picked up their fight and introduced a bill that stated:
No person or entity shall manufacture or knowingly sell food or any other product intended for human consumption which contains aborted human fetuses in the ingredients or which used aborted human fetuses in the research or development of any of the ingredients.
I’m not even sure where to begin. Does Shortey actually believe that companies are creating some sort of Soylent Green Fetus foods? Does he think that HEK293 cells that are in thousands of labs worldwide are actually derived directly from aborted fetuses? Couldn’t he have asked someone at the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or any mildly up-to-date high school science teacher to explain the difference to him? That of course assumes that he’d want an explanation in the first place.
The recent book THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot describes the history of another workhorse, the HeLa cancer cell line. These cells were derived from a black woman’s cervical cancer in the early 1950s (which were taken and cultured without her knowledge before she died). They have been used for half a century to characterize oncology compounds. Are those cells Henrietta-in-a-dish? Of course they’re not. Are we killing Henrietta every time we use them? Of course not. They’re no more Henrietta and HEK293 cells are no more an aborted fetus than that blood sample taken at the doctor’s office is “you”.
I get that there’s a huge segment of the population that oppose abortion. But HEK293 cells don’t require abortion – and no one knows whether the original sample for them was from a natural or induced termination (though I doubt that information would change CoGfL or Shortey’s stance). In their minds, it seems that anything that comes from this cell line is poisoned fruit. And I’ve been trying all day to figure out whether they know the difference between tissue and cell lines and don’t care, or simply don’t understand enough biology and keep themselves willfully ignorant. Which is worse?
I know people at Senomyx. They’re nice people and good scientists. Some of them even go to church. We work with HEK293 cells every day. They give us an idea about how compounds might behave before they’re tested in animals. We use these cells so that we don’t unnecessarily harm animals or people. We’re trying to cure disease.
And so State Senator Shortey wishes the people of Oklahoma to prohibit the manufacture and sales of products tainted by the research that I have dedicated my career to. It saddens me that there are people who look at what we do as some sort of abomination. My only hope is that this is a very small segment of the population, though after years of reading and hearing the right wing’s distrust of science, I worry. I know that things you don’t understand can be scary, and I know that “messing with biology” seems perhaps extra-scary, but we’ve been messing with it ever since we started domesticating plants and animals. I wish that there seemed to be more interest by people who don’t understand science to ask questions before assuming stances.
I hope Mr. Shortey has informed his constituents that not only additives for Pepsi products might have been developed using HEK293. Because, if adopted, his bill would ban nearly every drug that I can think of that was developed in the last 30 years. So I hope he, his family, or any Oklahomans haven’t benefited from blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, cholesterol, depression, pain, or anti-infective medicines during that time – and are ready to give them up.