Pluripotent science: Use of stem cells in the creation, assistance and prolonging of lives
The project studies expectations of stem cell based medical interventions into the first stages and last stages of human life. In Finland and globally, stem cells (cells capable of differentiating into diverse cell types) are increasingly involved in the treatment of three proliferating medical problems: infertility, children’s diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Our project focuses on stem cell research on these medical problems. The aim is to generate novel perspectives to the ethical, political, scientific, and personal aspects of medically assisted ‘beginnings’ and ‘ends’ of the human life course.
Stem cell research is rooted in assisted reproduction due to its dependency on ‘spare embryos’, donated by couples receiving infertility treatment. Embryonic stem cells are then used to assist the ‘beginnings’ of lives, via research aiming at creating cell replacement therapy for children’s diabetes, and the ‘ends’ of life via similar therapy for brain degeneration in Alzheimer’s disease.
The innovativeness of this project lies in a joint framework of analyzing infertility (Mianna Meskus, Elina Helosvuori), children’s diabetes (Mianna Meskus) and Alzheimer’s disease (Lotta Hautamäki). We suggest that, due to stem cell science, controversial matters of birth and ageing, of bodily reproduction and degeneration are changing. Sociologically, the interest is to explore ‘what it means to be human’ and how this is transforming through medical assistance.
The empirical objective of this project is to broaden the contemporary understanding about hopes, fears and dilemmas experienced by patients, doctors and researchers encountering infertility, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. The main research questions are:
- How do stem cell researchers frame and ‘translate’ the controversial biological materials they work with?
- How do patients experience the donation of their biological materials, or the possibility of receiving transplantations for the treatment of disease?
- What kind of networks of agency, dependency and assistance can we outline, between biological matter, techniques, knowledge, and human actors?
The leader of the project is post doc research fellow Dr Mianna Meskus, the research team consists of post doc researcher Lotta Hautamäki and doctoral student Elina Helosvuori.
The project is funded by the Kone Foundation.
Unique, Plural and Potential: Multiplicity of Human Biological Material
Dr Mianna Meskus’s postdoctoral researcher project studies social, political and conceptual implications of the scientific and therapeutic use of human biological material (stem cells and embryos). She applies ethnographic and printed data to explore how the use of human cells and tissue is defined and justified a) in infertility treatment, and b) in medical research and its commercialization. The focus of the study is in the practical and material exchange relationships between these two arenas of action. The project aims to produce knowledge on the scope of hopes, fears and dilemmas experienced by patients, doctors, as well as researchers when encountering high tech medicine and new reproductive technologies in particular. In addition, Meskus is interested in analysing how the co-workings of scientific research practices, patient activism and state-of-the-art technologies transform our present day conceptions of reproduction and, through this, our understandings of “biological” and “social” aspects of human life. The theoretical aim of this project is to discuss current challenges in social scientific conceptualization and to develop fresh perspectives to the question of what sociological analysis is about.
The project is funded by the Academy of Finland.