I recently got into a discussion on Facebook with someone who was a friend of a friend. My friend posted about how food companies use certain selling points to trick the consumer when it comes to artificial flavorings and preservatives. For example, “No sugar added” means they probably used some sort of sugar substitute that causes cancer in lab animals. Within the comments, a friend of this friend said something along the lines of “yeah and some companies are adding fetuses to the food and drink they manufacture.” I knew exactly what this was referring to, the HEK 293 cell line.
Apparently, Pepsi has been working with a company that uses these cell lines to test new flavor enhancers. Well, some pro-life groups got all in an uproar about this because this particular cell line was derived from the kidney of an aborted fetus in the Netherlands in the early 1970s. Hysteria further ensued when Oklahoma State Senator Ralph Shortey introduced a bill that stated “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 human aborted fetuses in the research and development of any of the ingredients.” Well, of course this freaked people out, including the friend of a friend. Why would people write a bill like this fetuses weren’t actively being added to our food!! Of course when asked to cite what companies were adding fetuses to their food, the senator couldn’t name any, mostly because there aren’t any. This senator is also known to be against stem cell research, and it is thought that he might be using this as a backdoor method to ban this research.
So, I wanted to explain to a friend of a friend that they didn’t have to worry about fetuses in their soda. But, on Facebook, one as to be delicate, you never know if you might actually cause a firestorm. So, I did something I hate doing, which is pull out the “I’m a biologist and educator card.” The main reason I did this was to show I wasn’t trying to be an argumentative jerk. I was trying to make this a teaching moment.
So, the truth of the matter is HEK 293 has been a cell line work horse in research labs for many years. Here is a scientific abstract from a paper about this cell line.
HEK293 cell line: a vehicle for the expression of recombinant proteins.
Department of Pharmacology, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK.
The HEK cell line has been extensively used as an expression tool for recombinant proteins since it was generated over 25 years ago. Although of epithelial origin, its biochemical machinery is capable of carrying out most of the post-translational folding and processing required to generate functional, mature protein from a wide spectrum of both mammalian and non-mammalian nucleic acids. Though popular as a transient expression system, this cell type has also seen wide use in stably transfected forms (i.e. transformed cells) to study a variety of cell-biological questions in neurobiology. The principal attributes which have made the HEK cell a popular choice among electrophysiologists to study isolated receptor channels include; its quick and easy reproduction and maintenance; amenability to transfection using a wide variety of methods; high efficiency of transfection and protein production; faithful translation and processing of proteins; and small cell size with minimal processes appropriate for voltage-clamp experimentation. These, and other attributes, also mean that complementary biochemical/cell biological evaluations of expressed proteins can be performed in concert with functional analyses to establish detailed pharmacological and biophysical profiles for the action of new drugs and their targets. The increased amount of sequence information available from the human genome has placed greater emphasis upon heterologous cell expression systems as targets for high throughput structure-function evaluation of novel drug targets and disease markers. Here we have highlighted some of the innate characteristics of the HEK cell in order that its suitability as a vehicle for the expression of a gene product can be assessed for particular needs. We have also detailed some of the standard methods used for transfection and obtaining functional data from electrophysiological recording techniques.
It pretty much explains why the company working with Pepsi used them. They were able to induce the cell to express taste receptors, like those found on your tongue. You can do an assay where electrical clamps are attached to the cell, and the cell is exposed to different chemicals. You can get an electrical output reading which is used as a proxy for the cell reaction to that chemical. Thankfully the friend of a friend was very cool about all of this and seemed to appreciate an explanation.
So, fear not, you are not drinking or eating aborted fetuses. Also, apparently Pepsi hasn’t even put any of the chemicals from this research into product use yet anyway. It is fine if some groups and individuals are not OK with the use of human embryonic cells for anything since it is against their religious beliefs. However, it is NOT fine for those individuals to lie and inflate the truth and induce fear in the general population.
And finally, small vials of these cells are about $400.00 a pop, so I highly doubt that Pepsi would want to add them to your $1.25 soda even if it could.