Pluripotent Circulations: Analyzing Articulations of Stem Cells in the USA, prior to 2001

Abstract: In this thesis, stem cell research and politics in the USA are analyzed by using actor-network theory (ANT). Here ANT is put to work on largely textual materials, often directly from US political settings, such as Congressional debates and national panels. Also, I analyze and challenge ANT meta-theoretically, inspired by ongoing critique in Science and Technology Studies. In part one the alternative notions of obligatory point of passage and boundary objects are applied to the political and public dynamics of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) resesarch between November 1998 and August 2001. I suggest an integrated model that draws on the metaphor of a circulatory system of science and society. Although the negotiations concern one and the same scientific object things and people may be coordinated differently depending on the resources at stake. Like previous cases of boundary objects, the hESCs are involved in the coordination of diverse actors. In contrast to previous cases, the hESCs are not merely forms that open for multiple uses, but also constrain and define diverse actors through their pluripotent capacities, main expected use within transplantation therapeis, and the material sources of “spare embryos”. To capture this composite content I argue that hESCs are strong boundary objects, or boundary packages. Part two goes backward to understand how the configuration of the boundary package and its coordination of diverse actors were stabilized. In previous negotiations of human embryo research, in 1994-1996 “spare embryos” and transplantation therapies appeared as prospective elements of coordination. I trace how technological developments within in vitro fertilization together with funding structures contributed to a so-called standard procedure producing “spare embryos”. Transplantation therapies to cure degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and juvenile diabetes came to be regarded as both possible and urgent together with the coordination of patients and politicians. The defining issue of American politics since the 1970’s – pro-life versus pro-choice – played a significant role in excluding alternative paths, sometimes in unexpected ways. I claim that these processes call for a more compartmentalized conception of stabilization, than previously used in ANT. Coordination of actors and configuration of elements happen in multiple circulations. Finally, the study returns to the period of 1998-2001 to analyze some of the processes that made the “spare embryos” and transplantation therapies contribute to the configuration and coordination of hESCs. One such process was the terminological definitions of pluripotency between toti- and multipotency. The definitions helped to hook on the hESCs to previous circulations by positioning these stem cells between embryos and alternative stem cells.

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