Principal Investigator, Molecular Biotechnology
Givaudan Flavors Corp. Cincinnati, Ohio
In 1999, groundbreaking research from Charles Zuker’s lab group identified the first two genes encoding taste receptors— T1R and T2R. Although the discovery of these long-speculated taste receptors was notable for its intellectual advancements, it also opened up a whole new commercial research sector.
Jay Slack found himself in the right place at the right time to reap the benefits.
Slack was finishing up his postdoctoral work on the genetics of the immune system with John Monaco at the University of Cincinnati, and was considering a career move. “The department where I was working had just hired three new faculty members, so I witnessed firsthand the scientific pain associated with trying to get tenure in academia,” he says. “So, I decided to maybe carve out my niche somewhere in industry.”
Having done his graduate training in pharmacology (focusing on calcium signaling in the heart), Slack initially explored pharmaceutical options, but, a chance conversation with the head of the transgenic animal facility revealed that a local company called Givaudan Flavors was looking to build on Zuker’s findings and establish an in-house taste receptor research group.
“I knew very little about the business of flavors, but working for Givaudan appealed to me because the science was interesting, and it was an emerging field,” he notes. “But what really sold it for me was that my daughter was taking antibiotics and absolutely hated their taste, so I thought instead of working for 20 years and maybe getting a drug to market, I could try to make existing drugs taste better and help patients immediately.”
And, although Slack and Givaudan have not quite reached that goal yet, they are making solid progress; just a few months ago, his group identified an inhibitor that blocks the bitter aftertaste associated with artificial sweeteners, which they can now use as a template to find future compounds that can make bitter pills a little easier to swallow.
But that work is just one aspect of Givaudan’s goals, which makes Slack’s work all the more enjoyable. “Our group is active in all the classical areas of taste, from sweet to savory, as well as in taste chemesthetics, which includes sensations such as pungency or cooling.” As an example, he notes that his group recently has developed a high potency analog of menthol that produces a cooling sensation that lasts for more than two hours, so you can have that fresh breath feeling from breakfast to lunch.
In addition, he has the freedom to pursue basic research pursuits. One area he’s particularly interested in involves the genetic variability of taste perception, at both the individual and population levels. He hopes to understand the mechanisms underlying the variation, whether it occurs in the receptor genes or in downstream pathways, and whether this variation influences behavior.
“Scientists have continued to identify more and more taste receptors,” he says, “and they’ve even begun finding them in non-taste cells, places like the gut, nasal cavity and even the brain. It’s possible that these internal taste receptors are linked to hormonal signals and mediate hunger or satiety.”
One thing that won’t be satiated any time soon, however, is the opportunities in the taste industry. Although this formerly orphan area of research has exploded over the past decade, it still remains a relatively new field with many unexplored avenues. “Taste research involves numerous fields of study, including organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, natural products, pharmacology and enzymology,” Slack says, “so, it definitely provides numerous options for young scientists.”