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Society and Morals, Perceptions, National Issues

For me, this is a tricky post to write. As a rule, I am opposed to boycotts for any reason. They are often based on incomplete and exaggerated information, are usually ineffective except for the protestors who get pictures published in news media and have little or no lasting constructive effect. The latter is true because corporations have personalities, generally set by the CEO. These personalities will not be changed by a one-time event like a boycott, even if it is successful in changing a specific policy. Eventually, the corporation will revert to character and continue to perform in its typical fashion.

However, there are issues that press my hot button, and this is one of them. There is a growing boycott effort within the pro-life movement against Pepsi--more specifically, PepsiCo--involving the employment of Senomyx Corporation, an established biotech company, for high-tech taste testing. The products involved are flavor enhancers which serve to increase the effectiveness of flavors. The problem is, Senomyx tests the effectiveness of these flavor enhancers via a Frankensteinian method utilizing  kidney cells from an aborted baby. The baby was aborted in 1970 and his or her kidney cells "harvested". These cells were then isolated, replicated and cultured in a growth medium. They are designated HEK293, for Human Embryonic Kidney, the 293rd attempt to successfully establish the cell line, which persists to this day.

It must be clearly understood that PepsiCo does not employ anything from an aborted baby in its products. It only employs a corporation to test its products that employs a cell line derived from an aborted baby. Also, Senomyx provides services utilizing HEK293 to many other companies. (I was unable to identify any of them as the boycott effort involves only PepsiCo at the present time.)

To provide a clearer understanding of the situation, I will attempt to explain the process employed by Senomyx.

(This illustration was obtained from a blog post by Dr. Gerard M. Nadal and the following technical discussion draws on information from that post.)

The green parallel lines represent the cell walls of the tongue's taste buds that interact with food and beverages to create the sensation of taste. The purple "signaling agnoist" represents the food molecule creating the taste sensation. It mates with a cell receptor designed for that type of molecule. The receptor is triggered to carry this agnoist response inside the taste bud cell, interacting with a series of proteins, called "G-proteins", to producing responses within the taste bud cell, producing several processes that generate nerve fiber impulses that the brain interprets as a certain taste. (I am not going to try to explain these processes in detail, even if I could.)

HEK293 allows Senomyx to generate the protein responses that simulate the taste bud's response to various "flavor enhancer" agnoists without the use of actual taste bud cells. (I suppose they're to hard to replicate, or something.) Senomyx does this for a number of corporations, including PepsiCo and Campbell Soup which dropped Senomyx after being notified of the negative response in the pro-life community. (Interestingly, both PepsiCo and Campbell's are Nestlé companies.) PepsiCo has specifically refused to drop Senomyx, which is the crux of the protest action. In fairness, Campbell Soups has little competition; Pepsi is in a knock-down, drag out battle with Coke that they are losing.

Now to the ethics. Yes, it was only a single aborted baby over 40 years ago. The problem is the slippery slope. As Dr. Nadal points out, the use of this type of biotech testing is very common. It is inconceivable that HEK293 is the only cell line being so utilized, obtained from other aborted babies. Senomyx seems to be a very successful company and certainly has imitators, or soon will have.

How many aborted babies will be used to provide the commercial means for profit? The use of human remains, especially from a controversial and--to many--abhorrent process like abortion, for commercial benefit and profit is at best ethically questionable and at worst, criminal. The critical question is, where does this stop?

At least embryonic stem cell research has the claimed potential--I have my doubts--for major human benefit in the cure of spinal injury, Parkinson's and other debilitating conditions. Soft drinks, soups and other foodstuffs, many of the junk food variety, suffer mightily from a lack of comparable benefit. (For the record, PepsiCo also produces Frito-Lay, Tropicana, Quaker and Gatorade products.)

The use of aborted baby parts for flavor augmentation frankly leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. Maybe this is one boycott I will support.

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