Forbes – Biotech’s Fear Factor
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:
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.
(Find a Word document of the bill here.)
1973 movie – Soylent Green – is people foretelling cannibalism!!
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 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.
Commentary by YouTuber pocketsofthefuture