The Christian media is swarming with accusations that Senomyx, a San Diego-based research and development company, whose clients include food heavy-hitters Nestle, Campbell's Soup, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo, is conducting research with HEK293, originally derived from human embryonic kidney cells.
These accusations began with an action alert issued by Largo, Florida-based Children of God for Life, a nonprofit, pro-life organization focused on the "bioethical issues of human cloning, embryonic, and fetal tissue research." In the alert, Debi Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God, calls for the public to "boycott products of major food companies that are partnering with Senomyx, a biotech company that produces artificial flavor enhancers, unless the company stops using aborted fetal cell lines to test their products."
On the company website, Senomyx describes research to find new ways to improve food flavors by taking advantage of the mouth's taste receptors. If you recall junior high school biology, the mouth can really taste only five flavors -- sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and glutamate. The company is using isolated human taste receptors in the form of proteins to identify flavors and enhance them.
Gwen Rosenberg, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications for Senomyx, described the process as "basically a robotic tasting system." She depicted rows of little plastic square dishes with hundreds of tiny indentations in each dish. A protein is placed in each indentation, then a flavor. If the protein reacts to the flavor, the results are charted. If the new flavor (of which the company has more than 800,000) is successful with the protein test, the company then conducts taste tests with (live) adult humans.
Asked about the action alert, Rosenberg said, "We don't discuss details of our research, but you won't find anything on our website about HEK293." I asked Rosenberg if Senomyx had a position on stem cell research. "We've never been asked that," she replied, "We don't have a position on anything. We're dedicated to finding new flavors to reduce sugars and reduce salt. Our focus is to help consumers with diabetes or high blood pressure have a better quality of life."
Though Rosenberg states there is nothing on the company website linking Senomyx with HEK293, a little Googling turned up a patent issued in 2008 for "Recombinant Methods for Expressing a Functional Sweet Taste Receptor," in which a line item mentions HEK293.
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So what exactly is HEK293? It's a cell line that started in the 1970s from human embryonic kidney cells. The line was cultured by scientist Alex Van der Eb in the early 1970s at his lab at the University of Leiden, Holland. Since then, the cell line has been cultured and grown in laboratories (you can buy some here). It's primary use is as a protein or a protein vessel -- sort of a natural test tube. It's also pretty common and seems to be available at most laboratory supply companies and used by many R&D facilities. In short, maybe not such a big deal.
So what does all of this mean? Is this "action alert" yet another rant by the right wing to draw attention to itself and delay scientific progress? In my opinion, yes. Children of God for Life has also issued news releases warning parents that childhood vaccines are made with aborted fetus cells. The cells they're talking about have "technically" originated from aborted fetus cells, but it's not like scientists are putting fetus body parts into blenders while laughing. Think of the fetus cells as sort of "ancient ancestors" to the new cells that are readily used today as "building blocks" and receptors in many commonplace scientific experiments in universities, hospitals, and commercial labs.
I would rather see cells being cultivated and grown in labs for use in experiments than the heinous wholesale torture and experimentation on laboratory animals. True, some of the experimentation is frivolous (who gives a rat's ass about finding out if something is sweeter than sugar -- use sugar sparingly and let's call it a day), but evil? I think not. This seems like just another way the religious right wants to set science and progress back to the "good old days" -- when people died from the common cold and the only way you could sweeten your iced tea was with sugar.