I know a great number of people who oppose abortion, and who are therefore opposed to the biomedical use of tissue or cells that have been derived from foetuses aborted for that very purpose, although most of them do not oppose the use of foetal tissue from foetuses aborted for some other reason. Over the last week or so, many have sent me a story involving a company named Senomyx, wondering if it’s true. In particular, the story claimed that Senomyx uses foetal cells, or substances derived from foetal cell lines, to create artificial flavourings. One article I have been referred to is straight from the immediately credible-sounding Natural News:
Every time you purchase mass-produced processed “food” from the likes of Kraft, PepsiCo, or Nestle, you’re choosing, whether you realize it or not, to feed your family not only genetically engineered poisons and chemical additives, but also various flavoring agents manufactured using the tissue of aborted human babies.– Natural News, Ethan A. Huff, Sickening: Major food corporations use tissue from aborted babies to manufacture flavor additives in processed foods, Natural News 25 April 2015, archive link
It’s true: A company based out of California, known as Senomyx, is in the business of using aborted embryonic cells to test fake flavoring chemicals, both savory and sweet, which are then added to things like soft drinks, candy and cookies. And Senomyx has admittedly partnered with a number of major food manufacturers to lace its cannibalistic additives into all sorts of factory foods scarfed down by millions of American consumers every single day.
Needless to say, this is total bullcrap, and in the following, we’re going on a ride in the Magic Schoolbus through this fetid swamp of lies, half-truths and quarter-wits.
In the beginning was the cell culture…
About ten years before I was born, a healthy foetus was (legally) aborted in Leiden, the Netherlands, and samples were taken from the foetus’s kidney. They were much like the cells in your kidney. Like the cells in your kidney (hopefully!), they had a beginning and an end. That end is known as the Hayflick limit or ‘replicative senescence limit’. Cells contain small ‘caps’ at the end of their chromosomes, known as telomeres. At every mitosis, these shorten a little, like a countdown clock, showing how many divisions the cell has left. And once the telomeres are all gone, the cell enters a stage called cellular senescence, and is permanently stuck in the G1 phase of the cell cycle, unable to move on to phase S. This is a self-preservative mechanism: with every mitosis, the cell line ages, and becomes more likely to start suffering from errors it passes on to its descendants. Experimentally, we know that the Hayflick limit is around 40-60 divisions.
But every rule has an exception. Most obviously, there are the cells that just won’t die – this is the case in cancers. And so, some cancer cells have this senescence mechanism disabled, and can divide an unlimited number of times. They have become practically immortal. This is, of course, a nuisance if they are inside a human, because proliferation and division of those cells causes unpleasant things like tumours. For researchers, however, they offer something precious: a cell line that will, as long as it’s fed and watered, live and divide indefinitely. This is called an immortal cell line. The most famous of them, HeLa, began life as cervical epithelial cells of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Then something dreadful happened, and the cells’ cell cycle regulation was disrupted – Ms Lacks developed aggressive cervical cancer, and died on October 4, 1951. Before that, without her permission or consent, samples were taken from her cervix, and passed onto George Otto Gey, a cell biologist who realised what would be Ms Lacks’s most lasting heritage: her cells would divide and divide, well beyond the Hayflick limit, with no end in sight. Finally, cell biologists had the Holy Grail: a single cell line that produced near-exact copies of itself, all descendants of a single cell from the cervix of a destitute African-American woman, who died without a penny to her name, but whose cells would for decades continue to save lives – among others, Salk’s polio vaccine was cultured in HeLa cells.
HeLa cells were immortal ‘by nature’ – they underwent changes that have rendered them cancerous/immortal, depending on perspective. But it’s also possible to take regular mortal cells and interfere with their cell cycle to render them immortal. And this brings us back to the kidney cells of the foetus aborted in the 1970s, a life that was never born yet will never die, but live on as HEK 293. A cell biologist, Frank Graham, working in Alex van Eb’s lab at the University of Leiden, used the E1 gene from adenovirus 5 to ‘immortalise’ the cell line, effectively rewriting the cell’s internal regulation mechanism to allow it to continue to divide indefinitely rather than enter cellular senescence. This became the cell culture HEK 293, one of my favourite cell cultures altogether, with an almost transcendental beauty in symmetry. These are the cells Senomyx uses for research.
HEK 293 is today a stock cell line, used for a range of experimental and production processes. You can buy it from Sigma-Aldrich for little north of £350 a vial. The cells you’re getting will be exact genetic copies of the initial cell sample, and its direct genetic descendants. That’s the point of an immortalised cell line: you can alter a single cell to effectively divide indefinitely as long as the requisite nutrients, space and temperature are present. They are immensely useful for two reasons:
- You don’t need to take new cell samples every time you need a few million cells to tinker with.
- All cells in a cell line are perfectly identical. It goes without saying just how important for reproducible science it is to have widely available, standardised, reference cell lines.
Admittedly, this was a whistle-stop tour through cell cultures and immortal(ised) cell lines, but the basics should be clear. Right? I mean… right?
The scientifically ignorant case against Senomyx
Until about 7pm today, I had absolutely no idea of who Sayer Ji is, and I would lie if I asserted my life was drastically impoverished by that particular ignorance. Sayer Ji runs a website (which I am not going to link to, but I am going to link to RationalWiki’s entry on it, as well as Orac’s collected works on the man, the myth and the bullshit), and he describes himself as a ‘thought leader’. That alone sets off big alarms. Mr Ji, to the best of my knowledge, has no medical credentials whatsoever, nor any accredited credentials that would allow him to make the grandiose statements that he seems to indulge in with the moderation of Tony Montana when it comes to cocaine:
There is not a single disease ever identified cause by a lack of a drug, but there are diseases caused by a lack of vitamins, minerals and nutrients. Why, then, do we consider the former – chemical medicine – the standard of care and food-as-medicine as quackery? Money and power is the obvious answer.– Sayer Ji, About me (archive link)
You may question why I even engage with someone whose cognition is operating on this level, and you might be justified in doing so. Please ascribe it to my masochistic tendencies, or consider it a sacrifice for the common good. Either way, I pushed through a particular article of his which is cited quite extensively in the context of Senomyx, titled Biotech’s Dark Promise: Involuntary Cannibalism for All. In short, Mr Ji’s ‘article’ rests on the fundamental assertion that ‘abortion tainted vaccines’, among which he ranks anything derived from HEK 293 (which he just refers to as
293), constitute cannibalism. He is, of course, entirely misguided, and does not understand how cell line derived vaccines work:
Whereas cannibalism is considered by most modern societies to be the ultimate expression of uncivilized or barbaric behavior, it is intrinsic to many of the Western world’s most prized biotechnological and medical innovations. Probably the most ‘taken for granted’ example of this is the use of live, aborted fetus cell lines from induced abortions to produce vaccines. Known as diploid cell vaccines (diploid cells have two (di-) sets of chromosomes inherited from human mother and father), they are non-continuous (unlike cancer cells), and therefore must be continually replaced, i.e. new aborted, live fetal tissue must be harvested periodically.Sayer Ji, Biotech’s Dark Promise: Involuntary Cannibalism for All (archive link)
For the time being, the VRBPAC has mooted but not approved tumour cell line derived vaccines, and is unlikely to do so anytime soon. However, the idea that diploid cell vaccines need a constant influx of cells is completely idiotic, and reveals Mr Ji’s profound ignorance. WI-38, for instance, is a diploid human cell line, and perfectly ‘continuous’ (by which he means immortal). There is no new “aborted, live fetal tissue” that “must be harvested periodically”. Least of all would Senomyx want to do that – new cells means inconsistency. The very advantage of cell lines to buyers like Senomyx is their wonderful consistent nature.
Equally, Mr Ji is unaware of the idea that vaccines do not typically contain cells from the culture, but only the proteins, VLPs or virions expressed by the cells. There’s no cannibalism if no cells are consumed, and the denaturation process (the attenuation part of attenuated vaccines) is already breaking whatever cellular parts there are to hell and back. On the infinitesimal chance that a whole cell has made it through, it will be blasted into a million little pieces by the body’s immune system – being a foreign cell around a bunch of adjuvant is like breaking into a bank vault right across the local police station while expressly alerting the police you’re about to crack the safe and, just to be sure, providing them with a handy link for a live stream. Not that this is relevant at all to Senomyx, because Senomyx is not selling anything produced by cell lines. Rather, its use of cell lines is to host synthetic receptors.
From cell lines to Diet Coke: Senomyx and high throughput receptor ligand screening
If you have soldiered on until now, good job. This is where the fun part comes – debunking the fear propaganda against Senomyx by a collection of staggering ignorami.
Senomyx is a company with a pretty clever business model. Instead of using human probands to develop taste enhancers (aka ‘flavourings’) and scents, Senomyx uses a foetal cell line, specifically HEK 293, to express certain receptors that mimic the taste receptors in the human body. Then, it tests a vast number of candidate compounds on them, and sees which elicit a particular reaction. That product (which typically is a complex organic chemical but has nothing to do with the foetal cell!) is then patented and goes into your food. To reiterate the obvious: no foetal cells ever get anywhere near your food.
The kerfuffle around this is remarkably stupid because this is basically the same as High Throughput Screening (HTS), a core component of drug development today. Let’s go through how a drug is developed, with a fairly simple and entirely unrealistic example. We know that low postsynaptic levels of monoamines, especially of serotonin (but also dopamine and norepinephrine) correlate with low mood. One way to try to increase postsynaptic levels is by inhibiting the breakdown of monoamines, which happens by an enzyme called monoamine oxydase (MAO). But how do we find out which of the several thousand promising MAO inhibitors that our computer model spit out will actually work best? We can’t run a clinical trial for each. Not even an animal test. But we can run a high throughput screen. Here’s a much simplified example of how that could be done (it’s not how it’s actually done anymore, but it gets the idea across).
- We take a microtitre plate (a flat plate with up to hundreds of little holes called ‘wells’ that each take about half a millilitre of fluid), and fill it with our favourite monoamine neurotransmitters. Mmm, yummy serotonin! But because we’re tricky, we label them with a fluorescent tag or fluorophore, a substance that gives off light if excited by light of a particular wavelength, but only as long as they’re not oxidated by MAO.
- We add a tiny amounts of each of our putative drugs to a different well each of the microtitre plate.
- Then, we add some monoamine oxidase to each well.
- When illuminated by the particular wavelength of light that excites the fluorophores, some wells will light up pretty well, others will be fairly dark. The bright wells indicate that the candidate drug in that well has largely inhibited monoamine oxidase, and thus the monoamine neurotransmitter remained intact. A dark well indicates that most or all of the monoamines were oxidised and as such no longer give off light. This helps us whittle down thousands of candidate molecules to hundreds or even dozens.
What Senomyx does is largely similar. While their process is proprietary, it is evident it’s largely analogous to high throughput screening. The human cell lines are modified by Senomyx to express receptors analogous to those in taste buds. These are exposed to potential flavourings, and the degree to which they stimulate the receptor can be quantified and even compared, so that e.g you can gauge what quantity of this new flavouring would offset 1 grams of sugar. The candidate substances are then tested on real people, too. Some of the substances are not sweeteners itself but taste intensifiers, which interact to intensify the sweet taste sensation of sugar. It’s a fascinating technology, and a great idea – and has a huge potential to reduce the amount of sugars, salts and other harmful dietary flavourings in many meals.
The end product is a flavouring – a molecule that has nothing to do with aborted cells (an example, the potent cooling sensate S2227, is depicted to the left – I dare anyone to show me where the aborted foetal cells are!). Soylent green, it turns out, is not
people babies after all.
Now, two matters are outstanding. One is the safety of these substances. That, however, is irrelevant to how they were isolated. The product of a high-throughput screen is no more or less likely to be toxic than something derived from nature. The second point is a little more subtle.
A number of critics of Senomyx point out that this is, in a sense, deceiving the customer, and with pearl-clutching that would have won them awards in the 1940s, point out that companies want one thing, and it’s absolutely filthy:
Companies like PepsiCo and Nestle S.A. seek to gain over competitors. To do so, they boast products like “reduced sugar”, “reduced sodium”, “no msg”, etc. Sales profits and stocks increase when consumers believe they eat or drink a healthier product. The Weston A Price Foundation carries skepticism. They believe that the bottom line is what’s important. Companies only want to decrease the cost of goods for increased profits. Shareholders only care about stock prices and investment potential.Elisheva Weyers, DeBunked: Are We Consuming Products Made With Aborted Fetuses? (archive link)
Err… and you expected what? There is absolutely no doubt that something that gives your body the taste of salt without the adverse effects of a high-sodium diet is A Good Thing – so consumers do not merely think they’re getting a healthier product, they’re getting a product with the same taste they prefer, but without the adverse dietary consequences (in other words: a healthier product). To people who have to adhere to a strict low-sodium diet due to kidney disease, heart disease/hypertension or other health issues, this could well give back a craved-for flavour and improve quality of life. To people struggling with obesity, losing weight without having to say no to their favourite drink can result in better health outcomes. People with peanut allergies can enjoy a Reese’s Cup with a synthetic and chemically different protein that creates the same taste sensation, without risking anaphylaxis. In the end, these are things that matter, and should matter more than the fact that – shock horror! – someone is making money out of this.
All Senomyx does is what drug companies have been doing for decades, and an increasing number of companies will. But yet again, the cynics who see lizardoid conspiracies and corporate deceit behind every wall know the price of everything, but haven’t thought about the value of it for a second, have seized upon another talking point. They did so exploiting a genuine pro-life sentiment so many hold dear, intentionally misrepresenting or recklessly misunderstanding the fact that no aborted tissue will ever make its way into your Coke, nor will there be a need for a stream of abortions to feed a burgeoning industry for artificial taste bud cell lines. If anybody here is exploitative, it’s not Senomyx – it’s those who seize upon the universal human injunction against cannibalism and infanticide to push a scientifically incorrect, debunked agenda against something they themselves barely understand.
|↑1||This is not a post about the politics of abortion, Roe v Wade, pro-life vs pro-choice, religion vs science or any of the rest. It is about laying a pernicious lie to rest. My position regarding abortion is quite irrelevant to this, as is theirs, but it deserves mention that all of the people who got in touch hold very genuine and consistent views about the sanctity of life. Please let’s not make it about something it isn’t about.|
|↑2||Needless to say, this is not my friends’ usual fare, they too have seen it on social media and were quite dubious.|
|↑3, ↑10||In line with our linking policy, we do not link to pages that endorse violence, hate or discrimination.|
|↑4||From Greek τέλος, ‘end’.|
|↑5||Finally, Rebecca Skloot’s amazing book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, paid a long overdue tribute to the mother of modern medicine in 2010. Her book is a must-read to anyone who wants to understand the ethical complexities of immortal cell lines, as well as the touching story of a woman whom we for so long have known by initials only, yet owe such a debt to.|
|↑6||Disclosure: the University of Leiden is my alma mater, I have spent a wonderful year there, and received great treatment at LUMC, the university hospital. I am not, and have never been, in receipt of funds from the university.|
|↑7||As such, these cells represent an immortalised cell line as opposed to an immortal cell line like HeLa, where the change to the cell cycle regulation has already occurred.|
|↑8||Human, Embryonic, Kidney, from experiment #293.|
|↑9||Sort of. Like all human processes, cell culturing is not perfect. One risk is a so-called ‘contaminated cell line’, and the classical case study for that is the Chang Liver cell line, which turned out to be all HeLa, all the way. This is not only a significant problem, it is also responsible for huge monetary loss and wasted research money. You can read more about this, and what scientists are doing to combat the problem, here.|
|↑11||Curiously, he does not mention WI-38 and MRC-5, both cell lines derived from the lung epithelial cells of aborted foetuses, which are widely used in vaccine production…|
|↑12||The word ‘profound’ is especially meet in this context.|
|↑13||Which sounds like something someone MUST have done already. Come on. It’s 2018.|
|↑14||This article is a fantastic illustration of just how powerful this technique is!|
|↑15||Unrealistic, because we know all there is to know about monoamine oxidase inhibitors, and there’s no point in researching them much more – but it illustrates the point well!|
|↑16||Yes, I brought THAT meme in here!|
I’m glad I read your message I’m pro life and I do like to research before I talk on anything so deso especially when I heard stuff about senomyx I thought it was kinda of suspicious. I like to go into debates prepared Thankyou for this article
Hello! Great article. I do apologize beforehand if my comment/question is ignorant. So, are you saying that the foetal cells do not make there way into the food, but are in fact used to test for the flavorings and flavor enhancers? Anyone who knows the answer to this question… I appreciate the info.
Yes, that’s pretty much accurate, although they are not technically ‘foetal cells’, they are descendants of foetal cells harvested a very, very long time ago.
Oh so an innocent baby wasnt murdered to get these cells?
From a legal perspective: in the jurisdiction where this happened, the Netherlands, a foetus is not considered to be a person capable of being murdered – murder specifically refers to the killing of a person with a certain specific mental element, typically described as some sort of ‘malice’ or ‘forethought’ or ‘specific intent’. Most jurisdictions agree with this – off the top of my head, the only law that provides for this sort of personhood is Laci and Conner’s Law aka UVVA in the United States, and even there, it’s made somewhat clear that the foetus is deemed to be a victim, but not necessarily a person in all its legal fullness.
More importantly, you make a causal statement, i.e. X happened [in order] to Y. That’s definitely not the case. X (the abortion) would have happened notwithstanding Y or !Y (not Y). You confuse cause and effect – while Y (extracting the cells) was dependent on X (the abortion), Y was not the cause of X, as X would have happened anyway, Y or not.
I know this sounds very legalistic, but moral philosophy draws a serious dividing line between these circumstances (you may receive a donor organ from someone who died in a car crash, but that doesn’t mean the car crash happened to get you your donor heart). There are arguments (very sound arguments, in fact) that object to the use of things regarded as intrinsically evil, even if those things are beneficial. For instance, people who oppose the death penalty often oppose the PRC’s policy of using the organs of executed prisoners for transplants – partly because it incentivises the death penalty, but also because it instrumentalises human existence, life and death. That may be, on its own premises (again, I’m not taking sides here) a solid argument against using cell lines from aborted foetuses. The counter-argument is that bad things happen, and making the best out of it is honouring what’s lost.
There’s more to this than you think.
So without the healthy murdered ( aborted) baby you would in fact have nothing to work with …my heart goes out to the innocent little life snuffed out and then used over and over and over again ..
This man is devoid of all Godly traits he is a pawn for Hades .
No. There are plenty of cell lines that do not derive from foetal tissue. HeLa, one of the most widely used immortal cell lines, derives from cancer cells, for instance. Please read the article in detail.
Nice bias hairpiece you mornic ignorant baffoon. You literally admit they test these products with cell lines from an aborted fetus, and present that as somehow normal. You’re sick and he’ll has a place for you. May God save your sick twisted soul.
Hm. Normal is not necessarily a helpful word, I’ve found – in biotechnology and the life sciences, the use of cell lines, including foetal cell lines, is definitely as normal as it gets. A great deal of pharmacological testing and R&D uses these cell lines. From a slightly more philosophical point of view: if you believe abortion is, for whatever reasons, wrong or immoral, you can still reconcile that with using cell lines that derive from abortions as long as the purpose of the abortion was not to procure the cell lines. You may recognise this as the logic behind ‘double effect‘, and somewhat related to what Williams called agent regret. If that is your objection, the wrong has already occurred, it doesn’t change just because we make use of its derivatives. There is a lot of discussion on this in the literature, but calling people ignorant won’t get you closer to a better understanding of any of it.
Maybe you would liketo donate your puppy’s kidneys to Sentomyx to be used in “cell lines” for food additives. Oh, but you wouldn’t think of doing that would you; yet you approve of the innocent life killed in Norway so that your coffee creamer and candy will taste great without all that evil sugar and salt. Your arguments for HEK 293 are vain.
Jan, thanks for your comment.
Let me start by this. There are two ‘kinds’ of reasonings – the analytical and the normative. In other words: what is versus what ought to be. You can’t turn one into another (as Finnis said, they’re incommensurate). However, your oughts (your normative positions) should be informed by reality (analytical positions).
Note that I did not express any views with regard to using cell lines or abortion – that’s an ought and as a scientist, it is just not within my purview to decide what’s right or wrong. Living in a representative democracy, I get to have an opinion, of course, but that’s irrelevant. You get an opinion, I get an opinion, we all get an opinion. I deal in is, not so much as oughts.
I do, however, have a background of reasoning about oughts – I’ve studied, then taught, moral philosophy. Based on that, let me point out an important thing here. Assuming you believe that abortion in general, and the abortion that led to HEK293 in particular, was an ‘evil’ or a ‘wrong’, that does not necessarily taint a ‘non-causally related consequence’. Or, to put it this way: the abortion was going to happen, whether we were going to get a cell line out of it or not. It was not the motive for the abortion (in fact, it would be highly unethical and equally highly illegal to counsel or procure an abortion just to get some tissue samples – and also pretty pointless at this point). Thus, even if you staunchly believe abortion is wrong, you can accept ‘making the best out of a bad situation’. Just as you can use HeLa cells without endorsing the plethora of horrible situations – Ms Lacks’s cancer, systemic racial inequalities in the healthcare system that led to relatively late detection, poverty that led to perhaps a worse clinical outcome and the exploitative behaviour of scientists in taking and culturing her cells without her consent. Bad things happen, and sometimes the best we can do is to make the best out of it.
(I’d clear up one thing here about cell lines & my dog’s kidneys. There’s a widely used canine kidney cell line called MDCK. The benefit of cell lines is consistency. As such, there isn’t a huge interest in harvesting more tissue for creating new cell lines. You want a minimum number of cell lines for each kind of cell, so that you have consistent and comparable results. Equally, cell lines do not need vast amounts of tissue, nor do they need to be ‘replenished’ with new cells from living organisms.)
Hi Chris! I just want to apologize on behalf of the (probably well meaning) pro lifers attacking you in these comments. They are probably Christian brothers and sisters of mine that would never be so bold as to lash out at someone in a real life situation, and if they are, I would caution them that Jesus did say that anyone who calls someone a fool is in danger of judgment. That being said, thank you for this well done and thoughtful article. You did an awesome job staying impartial (perhaps other than calling someone else’s findings BS lol) and cleared up a very controversial topic for those of us with ears to hear. Well done! Sorry again for the attacks, I hope those won’t mar your view of our loving Father and hope to see you in the next life someday, provided you decide to entrust your life to Jesus. Blessings and peace to you and yours my friend.
I appreciate your kind note. Thank you.
Thank you for your detailed information. I will have to re-read it to understand better as I have a person close to me that believes that countless babies are being aborted to provide cells to add to commercial food products. Shame on those who perpetuate this conspiracy theory.
I understand and appreciate your kindness and attempt at representation. However, the Bible says to correct people as well which you did not do whatsoever in all due respect. I just don’t understand how you could read that and not feel the anger and hatred that was coming from his heart behind the words. Chris seems to be a very intelligent guy, and I do pray that he comes to Christ as well. But you should also just be careful and have discernment with edifying conversation, not just kind. because at the end of the day he clearly proves that there actually is aborted fetal cells in products. He just tries to justify it. Being kind is great but most importantly you should speak the truth and explain it because if not your just accepting his viewpoint.
No, I’m not saying that
– the best you can say, the very maximum, is that foetal cells are involved in the process leading up to the manufacture of those products.
From the perspective of Catholic moral philosophy (which is what I’m familiar with and which has produced most of the literature on this subject), that makes no difference. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the main doctrinal organ of the Catholic Church, has actually written a very detailed, in-depth examination of this situation (again – they’ve done this previously for vaccines in general). Let me quote from it:
You can, actually, make use of the results of something morally abhorrent without necessarily sharing in the evil of the act itself. It’s not a morally inconsistent position to argue that nothing that is remotely tainted with some gravely evil act should ever be used in any way – it’s just not a position I endorse. In my view, we’re ‘coming after the fact’ – the evil has been done and the best we can do is to derive some tiny speck of light out of its darkness by using knowledge immorally gained to help people. Beyond making sure this sort of stuff never happens again, the best way we have to honour the lives of people who became the victims of unethical medical experimentation, for instance, is to get something good out of all that mess. That’s not justifying or even excusing the original act – it lives in an entirely different universe in that it is concerned with ‘bad stuff happens, what now?’ rather than whether what happened was right, wrong, justified or unjustified.
The length of this article and all this run around tells me one thing. Companies like senomyx, do not give a damn about my health, and will collaborate with the devil himself to make profit with little cost, all american companies behaves the same selfish way. Lays, pepsi..etc. because of recent awareness about health, these companies formed an alliance to combat these health concerns by financing and supporting media research companies and writers who write articles like this one trying to justify the wrong doing of these product companies.
Please let Senomyx know. I am happy to be reimbursed in product, specifically any of their TRPM8 modulators. Yummy stuff.