There is considerable hype as well as hope invested in the stem cell field.
The Economic and Social Research Council currently funds a major UK research programme - the Stem Cell Initiative (SCI) - that explores the social, economic and political implications of stem cell research. The research focuses on the interaction between the social and the biomedical and asks if new social relationships are generated as a result and if so, whether these in some way change the way we think about our bodies, cultural identities, and existing ways of managing science.
For example, when women donate aborted fetal tissue to be used for stem cell science, seen as a 'good thing', evidence from SCI work shows that when they received more information and thought more carefully about the implications of such a decision their views became much more ambivalent.
What makes stem cell research here more troubling is its association with renewal, regeneration, and immortality which participants understood as somehow reinstating and even developing the fetus' physical existence beyond abortion, the very thing abortion is meant to eliminate. This simple example shows how the new research challenges conventional assumptions about our bodies, our tissues, indeed the very meaning of 'life' itself.
A broad overview of the work being done in the UK now would include analysis of changes in the global commercial investment in stem cells and the business models that will be required for success; the global politics of patenting, models of clinical translation, emerging inter-state alliances (particularly in Asia) that may constitute a challenge to US dominance in the life sciences, the international movement of scientists responding to the global stem cell market, and the continuing movement towards the international harmonisation of regulation.
Stem cells are also part of a universe of new types of what might be called 'bio-objects' biological agents that, are new because they make possible new types of social relationships. And they are highly mobile, circulating in a global biomedical arena.
The key ones being explored in the SCI are:
- tissue-engineered products;
- stem cell lines;
- interspecies embryos/animal human cybrids;
- artificial gametes/synthetic biology;
- embryonic-like induced pluripotent stem cells;
- genomic databases.
Each of these breaks down conventional understanding of the boundaries of biological entities and the social boundaries with which they are associated. These don't just pose problems of classification (notably, most recently, in the debate which led to the term 'admixed embryos'), but also problems of regulation, accountability, agency, ownership and so on.
Bio-objects are in this sense disordering and, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas might have put it, 'matter out of place', but rather than being eliminated are organised through regulation. In the same way people at the borders of society, or on the boundaries between categories are perceived as possessing both power and danger, so these bio-objects have been seen as both powerful and dangerous and in need of social control
Most of the ethical debates surrounding stem cells are similarly about the boundaries of these bio-objects, especially embryonic stem cells, and competing claims about what the cells actually mean. But beyond ethics, there is a range of technical and regulatory issues that continue to pose problems to the successful commercialisation of these products. To that extent, the latest phase of regenerative medicine faces many of the difficulties that all innovation experiences with respect to demonstrating its utility compared with existing products and services.
However, this is made even more problematic in the tissue economy compared with, say the pharmaceutical one, precisely because of the biological instability of tissue itself, which makes standardisation according to the requirements of good manufacturing practice much more challenging, and from a safety perspective raises concerns over the bio-distribution of cells implanted into a body: if you put the cells in the eye, for example, where else might they go?
These are just a few of the issues being explored by the SCI: the key message is the need to bring together social and biomedical science, as is happening in the UK, to try to understand not only the technical but also the long-term clinical and social challenges as well as promise the stem cell field will bring. That the SCI network forms part of the much wider UK National Stem Cell Network means that the lessons of this research can be relayed directly to bio-scientists, regulators and policy-makers within the UKNSCN.