Is Senomyx putting baby parts into your fruit juice? The answer may (not) surprise you.

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.1 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:2 3

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.

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.4 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.

Kadir Nelson, The Mother of Modern Medicine. Oil on linen, 59 1/2 x 49 1/2.
Kadir Nelson, The Mother of Modern Medicine. Oil on linen, 59 1/2 x 49 1/2. Image courtesy of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Washington, DC.

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.5

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,6 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.7 This became the cell culture HEK 293,8 one of my favourite cell cultures altogether, with an almost transcendental beauty in symmetry.

HEK293 cells
HEK 293 cells, immunofluorescence photomicrograph.

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.9 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?

Unless you’re Sayer Ji.

Until about 1900 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.

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.10 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),11 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.

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.12 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”.

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.13

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.14 Let’s go through how a drug is developed, with a fairly simple and entirely unrealistic example.15 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).

  1. 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 su