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.


HEK293 cells

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”.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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.

60 thoughts on “Distasteful

  1. It has been my experience that politicians, for the most part, are some of the most mentally retarded people on the planet. I lose faith in humanities desire to have a good government everytime there is an election. I think is pretty fair to say that smart people just don’t run for office.

    Wait, they are smart, just not with any kind of intelligence that would benefit their constituants.

    • Budd — I think one of the damning thing is that clearly this guy is representing (what I hope is) a VERY narrow segment of his constituency. I can’t believe most Oklahomans think like this. But yet, this district elected a guy like this. I’m having a hard time putting the two together.

  2. Before people start bashing on “ignorant Okies” (and don’t realize that Okie is an offensive word to a lot of us that live in Oklahoma) …

    If this cell line has been around for 40 years and didn’t come from aborted fetuses, then it doesn’t seem this bill would do anything to stop the usage of it in any way. Despite that, it’s a stupid bill. It’s another example of someone getting a press release from some group and having a knee-jerk reaction to it.

      • GOM — no, I don’t think most people in Oklahoma think this way and I was glad to see most of the comments in the local post were negative to the senator and his idea. I just don’t get how a guy like this gets elected in the first place?

        • Low voter turnout/voter apathy … He lost the Rep. primary, but won by a sliver in the run-off election … then won in the general election by 1500 or so votes.

          That district had a Democratic Senator who had served many years, then he died of cancer. His wife was elected to fulfill his unexpired term. She chose not to run for re-election in 2010 and took a state job (and there’s controversy = investigations and charges filed about a GOP ‘arranging’ the job for her so she wouldn’t run).

          One of this guys first actions was to file anti-immigration legislation. It apparently escaped his notice that most of his constituents are Hispanic.

          He will be a one term mistake … and even his party leaders are embarrassed by him.

  3. I had not heard of this. Excellent, well written, piece on this issue. (Then again, I can’t think of anything you’ve posted that hasn’t been an excellent, well written piece!)

    Are these people (CoGfL and Ralph Shortey) the same folks that confuse embryonic stem cells with adult stem cells used for research and therapies like bone marrow transplants?

    • If you go to the CoGfL website (part of me wants to for the Children of God for a Little While) — and get past the horrendous website architecture, you’ll see that they have quite the anti-science agenda.

  4. I am always so thankful for a voice of reason within a storm of stupid. Maybe there’s something in the human nature that needs a fight or a cause, which manifests itself in things like this. Too bad so few people crusade against poverty or hunger or human trafficking or people who can’t merge on the freeway.

    • I feel like we’re Noah on the verge of The Flood of Stupid sometimes. I think it comes down to single-issue people examining every bit of information through a very distorted lens. If all you care about is abortion, animal rights or merge politics, then that’s what you see.

      I got a flat yesterday b/c there was crap on my onramp. I blame the non-mergers.

  5. I’d recommend that you send this to his office but I’m not sure they’d understand its contents. I think it’s an excellent piece, if you’re willing to go public, for an OP-ED in YOUR paper and in OK City’s.

    I think it would be a good thing to write your own Representatives and explain his bill and your position on it (read: explain it) because it may give them information to use in future. You never know. Things start small and continue on and on for years, spreading, like the stupid Voter ID card thing that gets resurrected over and over again. Voter fraud is NOT “the problem” (we’re already required to prove our identity) but forcing voters to get a special ID does disenfranchise many.

    • MT — in the local website that GOM posted it looks like some sanity in the state house has tabled this bill, so at least there’s that.

      I think you’re dead-on with the whittling away of many liberties. The recent furor over contraception and the dozens of bills in different state houses looking to restrict access to family planning services are a great example.

  6. These anti-abortion groups are becoming like PETA; they’ll run with any story at all that could work to raise awareness for their kooky ideas and attract wingnuts to support them. It is sad considering there are real threats to our health such as CO2 pollution and children are actually dying from extreme weather and droughts. Why don’t they talk about that?

    On that note, I am curious what role these cells play in the food. Did you say it was about taste and substituting sugar? How does that work? I’m sure you explained it already Steve (I’ll blame a coffee shortage for my lack of understanding today. Yeah, that’s it).

    • Oh, now I get it. Its influence is pre-food. Sorry. Still curious about the chemical process, but I don’t want to distract from the underlying issue.

      • Yes the cells are just used in assays and never end up in any of the final product.

        And I do agree that a lot of these groups are looking to make noise by being outlandish. As if that somehow helps their cause or makes them “experts” in the area.

  7. I also had a thought that’s only slightly on-topic — that maybe we should go back to eating real food instead of creating it in labs.

    • 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.

      Well, GMOs and GMFs would be included in this line of thought then, yes? The fear isn’t just limited to right-wing groups, then. Maybe “Frankenfoods” isn’t the fairest comparison to “fetus-soda”, being less bogged down by misinformation (that I recall from media sources), yet I still think it’s worth considering.

      • jaklumen — it’s a good question. I’m not sure how many GMO/GMF products use technology like HEK293 cells, but they certainly do genetic modification which I’m guessing the CoGfL wouldn’t be keen on.

        The GMO arguments are also littered with misinformation from both sides.

    • Oh — the real versus processed food is such a convoluted and difficult discussion that brings in social status, economic policy, poverty, education and access. I do like the rule of thumb that if your great grandparents wouldn’t recognize it as food, don’t eat it.

      • I do understand those factors. Access was a tough one for us, for a while. Growing our own food wasn’t feasible when we lived in an apartment (no, not even in pots and small planters). We have more opportunities now that we are in a house. We planted our first fruit tree yesterday and will be preparing some garden allotments very soon. We’re also on the edge of farm country, so raising a few chickens is a possibility. (No, it won’t be like “urban chickens”.)

        Even if we don’t grow everything– we also have the benefit of living in an area where a lot of people farm and tend orchards. We have friends that sometimes can’t sell all of their crops, and we have good options canning or otherwise processing it ourselves.

  8. As a semi-native Okie (I was raised there but born elsewhere), this doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. This is the same state that regularly votes down prenatal care as being “socialist” and that has a senator who bragged about shutting down a March of Dimes research effort because it was “dangerous to babies”. It isn’t about helping others; it is about getting votes for themselves.

    • I’m embarrassed to add that this is only one of many such bills going through our legislature this year. I can hardly stand to read the paper each morning wondering what new nonsense will be on the front page!

      • john & qofb — I think the thing that I get confused by is that I have to think that this sort of extremist position MUST be in the minority (right, it’s the minority, right?) — so how does a guy like this get elected. Is the fringe just the most motivated during elections?

  9. Excellent piece, Steve.

    I’m not sure which would be more insidious: whether Senator Dumbass believes this crap, or maybe he knows it’s bunk, and is just doing this for political gain.

    I shall drink a Pepsi in his dishonor, though.

    • Am I allowed to judge someone by their picture? Ok — my guess is that Shortey has to use velcro shoes because he can’t get that shoe-tying thing down. It seems to me that he’s just a mouthpiece for the special (fringe) interests.

  10. I’d like to hope that it’s only the extreme, extreme right who are so blinkered.

    Not all of us on the right are allergic to science.

    This was very interesting. I’ve never even heard of HEK293. What kinds of things to they test with it?

    • I think single-issue people who become zealots are dangerous whether they’re on the left, the right or anywhere in between.

      293 cells are generally used in assays that test some agent’s activity — testing the activation of some receptor or channel. Or to see if something is toxic to mammalian cells. Generally most drugs are developed by going from test-tube sorts of experiments (you can do a lot of them easily, but you’re pretty far removed from “real” organisms), then move onto cells like HEK293s (you can’t do as many experiments, and they’re a little finickier, but they’re a good bridge between the test-tube and an animal.). After going through cell-based assays, the few/best compounds would get tested in animals.

  11. LOVED this post. I posted it to Facebook in the hopes that some of my more science-phobic friends might read it. I’ve been in a rage for a lot of the last two weeks regarding people who remain willfully ignorant. *Sigh*

    • Thanks Joie — it’s been interesting to see the replies to your post. I can’t quite figure out how people got quite so distrustful of science. I mean, we faked the moon landings and all, but come on!

  12. People should do some basic research to understand what they are talking about before raising ruckus. But that would mean actually moving their backsides to do some work, and that will intrude upon their five seconds of fame.
    Excellent post, Steve.

    • LG — actually I think they could probably still sit on their butts and just spend 20 minutes on Wikipedia. But it’s easier to make “facts” conform to your worldview than change your worldview in the light of data.

  13. This kind of ignorance and chest-pounding is what makes being a hermit so seductive.

    Would you be willing to send a version of this post to Shortey? It might help.

    • SS — I’ve thought about it. I wonder if I’d get a reply. Perhaps I’ll send the link and offer to help explain the difference between cell culture and tissue.

  14. Excellent job, Steve. Politics are a game. I wonder if Shortey or the staff of Shortey did any research to confirm/negate the info provide him by that anti-abortion group. Dare I suggest, he was merely trying to appease without checking out the facts?

    My only … can’t shut up … irk… was the ‘right wing’ mention. It’s not right or left. Every side has freak-outs and conspiracy theorists.

    • LD — my guess is that Shortey has promised the zealots the bill and never bothered to do any fact-checking on his own. He may in fact believe it himself and not be interested in finding out what is real and what is hyperbole.

      And I like to think that I am an equal opportunity basher of single-issue zealots whether it comes from the right (like this, Shortey is Republican) or the left (like last year’s PETA lawsuit against Sea World arguing that orcas were slaves). I don’t have tolerance for those that won’t look at data that doesn’t conform to their worldview.

  15. Pepsico doesn’t get a lot of sympathy from me, as they’ve contributed millions to the Republican Party’s war chest and zero to children’s health, unless you count Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative. (I’m cynical and don’t believe it will be effective, alas.) If one supports a party that has become increasingly anti-science and anti-medicine, then one shouldn’t be surprised if other members of that party suddenly turn around and bites one for using science. Ralph Shortey (wonderful name) was one of those candidates voted in by the Tea Party, and to date has proposed all sorts of hateful, stupid legislation—one of his bills would have allowed the state to confiscate the cars of illegal aliens—none of which has ever passed. Oklahomans are for the better part sensible people. But this is what comes of voting in candidates on only one agenda, in this case, a hatred of government. When they start using government as a means to push ignorance, we are all in trouble, unfortunately.

    • Good point about Pepsi, HG. UCS came out with a recent report about this stuff, funny how many sides of the fence these food companies pretend to be on:

      “In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry accepted a $1 million donation from Coca-Cola. That year, the group claimed that “scientific evidence is certainly not clear on the exact role that soft drinks play in terms of children’s oral disease.” The statement directly contradicted the group’s previous stance that “consumption of sugars in any beverage can be a significant factor…that contributes to the initiation and progression of dental caries.”

      • I should have added that Pepsico also contributes money to the Democratic Party, though not as much. They know it’s best to hedge your bets. But every election year I swear I’ll declare myself an Independent, and then I realize I’m just helping the right wing get into the White House and Congress. I wish we had a parliamentary system similar to the UK and Australia: that way smaller parties have at least a chance of getting representation in government.

        • I guess then the question becomes what earthly reason has a soda company for influencing an election? We do need other parties to get us out of this bind, to bring the conversation to a more moderate place and to show both parties they are expendable.

        • I think most big corporations (I mean, they’re just like really rich people, right?) are perfectly happy playing both sides so that they “win” no matter who wins an election. As long as whatever legislature or executive is favorable to them, I doubt they care too much whether there’s a donkey or elephant on the wall.

    • HG — oh I don’t have any love-loss for Pepsi and other sugar-drink pushers (https://stevebetz.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/pop-politics/) — I think the single easiest thing to help tide the obesity/diabetes trend in America is for people to stop drinking soda.

      It used to seem that being a scientist and “figuring things out” was something that was applauded. But when science starts pushing back the frontiers into areas of biology, physics and cosmology that make religious people uncomfortable, all of a sudden we have an agenda to destroy God (whatever that means).

      The smartest thing George Bush ever did (and granted it’s a short list) was when he said “Teach the controversy” about Intelligent Design. Even though there was no controversy among scientists, by having POTUS give legitimacy to the idea, it created the idea that facts were something you could pick and choose between — keeping the ones you like and discarding the ones you don’t like.

  16. I am a Coke lover (the kind that goes in your glass, not up your nose) and dislike Pepsi intensely. However, this story is just icky and, I hope, doesn’t become sticky as in…I hope this bill just fades away and dies in a corner somewhere. Eww.

    The Mister just told me yesterday that Coke is under investigation in California for a possible connection with one of its ingredients causing cancer in mice. It was one study and the mice had to drink the equal of 2,000 cans…no mention of time frame vs. lifespan. I haven’t googled the story yet to find out if they are going to be forced to chance the formula.

    I still stand by my choice of everything and anything I want…in moderation. Like Fettucini Alfredo (heart attack on a plate)…yes, if you eat it every day. Twice a year? Give me a second serving. :-)

    • BD — fortunately, it looks like the OK state house has tabled the bill, so you could still get soda and drugs when you road trip through the state.

      Don’t get me started on the this causes cancer in rats crap. Here’s something you learn in the drug business: EVERYTHING IS TOXIC IF YOU TAKE ENOUGH! (think of that poor woman that died from drinking too much water on a dare and died of osmolytic shock — WATER!).

      • Funny. I was just thinking about the coke/pepsi change they are making due to the cancer thing. I was thinking about it, while I reached in the cooler at the store and grabbed a diet coke. (i wanted to avoid any fetas-matter). Cheers!

  17. Great post all the way around and simply fascinating to see the convoluted leaps (or would that be lacks) of logic needed to get from a cell line in a petri dish to a soft drink. And although I don’t believe the Senator’s bill will have much of a shelf life, it is frightening to think of the implications should fear and irrationality actually trump science. I speak as a veteran of two phase I clinical trials now: petri dish to white mouse to me and my fellow front-liners. Bless all you working to find a cure to what ails us; and may stupidity never impede progress.

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