I covered science and medicine, and believe this is biology’s century.
So did you hear the one about the fetal tissue in your soda?
Oklahoma State Senator Ralph Shortey is being widely mocked for a bill to ban the use of human embryonic tissue in the production or research of food. Or, in the language of the bill:
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(Find a Word document of the bill here.)
I think this bill is anti-medicine, anti-biotech, and anti-business, but I also think that Shortey has a point, and that his effort highlights a deep divide in the way people understand and feel about science that no amount of mocking on Twitter or Andy-Kaufman-esque stunt articles on Gawker will change. So let’s take a look at what Shortey is actually talking about.
No person or entity is manufacturing food or other products intended for human consumption that contain aborted human fetuses. But some food companies are using cell lines that were originally derived from human fetuses in order to develop new food products. Moreover, many medicines and vaccines, which I suppose could be seen as “meant for human consumption.” The Children of God For Life, which according to press reports inspired Shortey’s bill, also opposes standard vaccines for chickenpox, rubella and hepatitis A and drugs such as Roche’s Pulmozyme for cystic fibrosis and Amgen‘s Enbrel for rheumatoid arthritis. (See a list of products Children of God For Life say are unethical.)
The fetus-derived cell line we’re talking about was also created around the time I was born. This is 35-year-old technology. And it is widely used in cell biology. And there is no way you’ll consume them or that the cells would cause any health problems.
The cells, called HEK 293 cells (that stands for human embryonic kidney) were taken from an aborted fetus in the 1970s in the Netherlands. Bits of chopped up DNA from the adenovirus, a virus that causes a pretty severe cold. The kidney cells were forced to take up bits of DNA using a technique invented in 1973 that used a calcium solution. The resulting cells don’t act much like human cells at all, but they are very easy to work with and have become workhorses of cellular biology. That’s why they’re used in the development of drugs and vaccines. (Here’s the original paper on the creation of the HEK cells. ) No new fetal tissue has been used to keep the cell culture going; the use of this cell line isn’t leading to new abortions.
A tiny company called Senomyx, whose stock is trading near its 52-week low, has been working to use this new technology to create food additives. Senomyx has isolated receptors found on cells that detect taste, and added them to the HEK cells. This allows them to test thousands of potential taste additives to see whether they might taste sweet or savory with a speed that would be impossible with human taste testers. (You can find a scientific paper on the Senomyx sweetener work here. ) Synomyx has announced collaborations with Pepsi, Nestle, and Coca-Cola. The stock market values the company at $140 million, which is not much by the standards of biotech.
Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
There’s a huge public health upside to what Synomyx is doing. They are developing flavors that mimic sugar, salt, and also savory tastes. I’m a guy who doesn’t drink soda because of the health risk involved. But replacing ingredients that can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer strikes me as a useful endeavor. The creation of a medicine like Pulmozyme for cystic fibrosis, which the Children of God For Life says also used HEK cells, seems even more worthwhile. So do the vaccines from Merck and GlaxoSmithKline that the group also opposes.
I don’t think many people in science or in the drug business would think of using HEK cells as “using aborted fetuses.” To a very large extent, the HEK 293 line is being caught up in the embryonic stem cell politics of a decade later. But I can see how people who think fetal tissue should never be used in any medicine would see a problem here. I can also understand how a lot of biotechnology can seem a little scary and Frankenstein-like, because it emphasizes how malleable and manipulable our basic parts are. The fact that we can so manipulate biology challenges our view of ourselves as spiritual beings in control of our own destinies.
When the New York Times pooled its bestseller lists for last year, including e-books, hardcovers, and paperbacks, the number three title was a science book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. That book followed the history of how cervical cancer cells taken from the tumor of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman in the 1950s, became widely used research tools. It also followed her children as they grappled with the reality that cells from their dead mother’s cancer had been being used for decades. Some of the books most touching parts of the story come as Skloot and others try to explain what it means for cells to become immortal, for them to be used in research.
We’re all a little bit like Lacks’ children, dealing with a new kind of technology that is in many fundamental ways made of us. That’s going to become an even bigger problem as these technologies become more ubiquitous, as is likely to happen over the coming years as tools like DNA sequencing and synthetic biology – the power to really design cells in ways that the creators of the HEK line could only dream about – increase in their reach and usefulness. We’re embarking on something new and important as a species. Mocking the doubters for not being hip doesn’t quite seem the right way to move forward.