(C09)
Bio-objectification: meetings and new thresholds across the bio-social
Location Cavendish Colloquim (Faraday Complex)
Date and Start Time 27 Jul, 2018 at 14:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Andrew Webster (University of York) email
  • Conor Douglas (Maastricht University) email
  • Bettina Bock von Wülfingen (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) email

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Chair Conor Douglas, Bettina Bock von Wülfingen, Andrew Webster

Short abstract

The session asks how bio-objectification and bio-identification are generative of different meetings and thresholds: confluences as bio-identities are disturbed and rebuilt anew, how collaborative processes across socio-technologies emerge and new socio-biological intersections are created.

Long abstract

Bio-objects, bio-identification, and bio-objectification are conceptual tools that have been developed and deployed over the past 10 years to help make sense of the re-configuration of life, the life-sciences and health technologies. This session takes these ideas further to examine the spaces and sites where bio-objectification can be seen to generate new meetings and thresholds. Such confluences and intersections are at times generative of, but also problematic for, technology adoption and standardisations across diverse bio-social, biomedical, bio-material practices. Similarly they may also involve novel relationship, organisational forms and collaboration.We are especially interested in contributions that have a strong empirical component and that range across the life sciences.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Bioengineering as a site of bio-objectivation

Author: Benjamin Raimbault (Institut national de la recherche agronomique) email
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Short abstract

We investigate bioengineering as a major site of bio-objectivation from the genealogy of bioengineering at MIT since the 70s. We show how bio-objects are central for chemical engineers to institutionalize bioengineering in the shadow of genetic engineering.

Long abstract

This paper intends to contribute to contemporary analysis on the re-configuration of life by investigating the relations between bioengineering and bio-objectivation.

Our starting point is the statement made by bio-objectivation works namely that "the argument of molecularisation of life dangerously flirts with the essentialisation of life as molecules and DNA." (Vermeulen, Tamminen, & Webster; 2016: p2-3). Since the emergence of recombinant DNA and what is now called the biotech turn in the 70s, it is common to talk about bioengineering. Nevertheless, in many cases, the "bios" is restrained to DNA as an informational molecule whereas engineering is under problematized.

Our investigation is focus on the genealogy of the bioengineering department of one of the main sites of world engineering namely the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Our results are threefold.

First, bioengineering has been mainly invested by chemical engineers, in the shadow of modern biotech, with the help of industry and specific federal program lead by NSF like the Engineering Research Center (ERC). Second, the centrality of chemical engineers cannot be separated from a bio-objectivation of life where enzyme is the main epistemic things. Third, bio-objectivation is related to production issues. Therefore, industry is a crucial site for the establishment of scientific credibility and a main reference in identities or representations.

This communication is based on the Biotechnology Process Engineering Center (BPEC) archives and a 5 months ethnography in the Center for Integrative Synthetic Biology (CISB) of MIT which is part of the bioengineering department.

Bio-objectification and interdisciplinarity: the case of a Norwegian project on tissue engineering

Author: Maria Bårdsen Hesjedal (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) email
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Short abstract

The paper examines whether meetings in a Norwegian interdisciplinary research project on tissue engineering creates novel relations and collaborations. Using ethnographic methods, I explore how the process of bio-objectification plays out in the collaboration and digitalization in the project.

Long abstract

In the last decade, concepts like bio-objects and bio-objectification have helped us understand how living matter is made into objects and how this may shift, question and destabilise the boundaries between human-animal, organic-nonorganic, and living-non living (Vermeulen et al. 2016)*. Recent development in the scientific landscape is characterized by increased demands for 'response-able' research within life sciences. For example, I work within a newly established national biotechnology centre called Digital Life Norway (DLN), where inter- and transdisciplinarity is to be an important theme in order to generate social value through computational biotechnology research. In this paper, I examine whether meetings in this organisational form of a national but decentralized centre creates novel relations and collaborations. I focus on an interdisciplinary project on tissue engineering aiming to develop novel strategies for 3D microtissue engineering. To gain increased understanding of the environment of growing cells, the first project phase is an attempt to make alginate gels with desired properties for the cells to thrive in. Which role do objects such as gels play in this project, and how can this be seen as a bio-objectification process? Drawing on ethnographic participant observation and semi-structured interviews, this paper explores how the process of bio-objectification plays out in the project, and what consequences this have both for interdisciplinary collaboration and for how the biological processes are digitalized.

*Vermeulen, N., Tamminen, S., & Webster, A. (Eds.). (2016). Bio-objects: Life in the 21st Century. Routledge.

Making bio-objects mobile

Author: Michael Morrison (University of Oxford) email
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Short abstract

Circulation of bio-objects such as human stem cell lines requires entanglement of the 'bio' with the digital and non-biological material alike. In addition, to make bio-objects mobilisable across institutional or legal thresholds they often need to be 'tethered' to fixed sites.

Long abstract

The concept of bio-objectification describes how the 'raw materials' of living cells and tissues are subject to both technical manipulations and ontological transformations to produce novel 'bio-objects' such as cell lines and transgenic animals (Vermeulen, Tamminen and Webster 2012). Such bio-objects are rarely static; they are conceptually fluid, but also subject to more literal geo-physical dissemination and circulation, through biobanks and repositories. Making bio-objects mobile means producing them in such a way that they are capable of travelling across institutional, national, and contextual thresholds, and of moving between public and private sectors. This paper uses one particular bio-object -the human induced pluripotent stem cell (hiPSC) -to explore how making bio-objects mobilisable, involves a close entanglement of the 'bio' with the digital (the 'bio-virtual'), and with other non-biological material entities, and how legal and ethical requirements for the use of human biomaterials act to 'tether' (Hinterberger and Porter 2015) bio-objects to their sites of origin. Perhaps paradoxically, making bio-objects mobile turns out to entail establishing and stabilising connections and fixed points of reference. These claims will be illustrated using empirical data from recent European hiPSC biobanking projects. Finally, some implications of a focus on mobility and of expanding this frame of analysis will be offered.

Hinterberger A and Porter N. 2015. Genomic and Viral Sovereignty: Tethering the Materials of Global Biomedicine. Public Culture 27:2 doi 10.1215/08992363-2841904

Vermeulen, N., S. Tamminen, and A. Webster, eds. 2011. Bio-Objects: Life in the 21st Century. London: Ashgate.

Information and the biopolitical: thinking across bio-objects

Author: Eric Deibel (Bilkent University) email
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Short abstract

The biopolitical refers to thinking across informatic ways of acting on and interacting with bio-objects. Drawing on examples from the intersection of life sciences and environmentalism, it is argued that there is a shift in what is recognized as an alternative in different fields

Long abstract

When comparing bio-objects it is easy to establish that each of them has politics. Such multiplicity begs the question what kind of bio-politics this implies, or rather what "the biopolitical" is.

This paper returns to Foucault as its theoretical horizon with as the aim to sustain detailed examinations but to tie these to its original setting: the "problem of sovereignty". Rather than demonstrating how a multiplicity of values is invoked, the approach seeks to examine how the various imaginaries resemble each other in important respects. The point is not simply a critique of ideologies that hinge on a more seamless union of technology, nature and society, but to examine the origin story at work in these types of settings. Specifically, the biopolitical revolves around the establishment of a sense of logical coherency in between genetics, human nature and the social world as something that can be lost or saved. This implies a solution that takes shape as an appeal for new social agreements and standards of credibility that cut across natural and social worlds. The problem is that this implies disciplining the unruly formation of bio-objects and the related dissolution of (bio-)subjectivities. The case will be made that out of a range of alternatives very few actually challenge the informatic ways of thinking and interacting with life as a technological creation. Such biopolitics implies a detachment from nature as a constructed throughout the embodied-know-how of the subject and living and working within multi-species environments as a meaningful (bio-)objective.

Meeting success and failure in Alzheimer's disease drug development.

Author: Richard Milne (University of Cambridge) email
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Short abstract

This paper examines the role of pharmaceutical 'failure' in shaping bioclinical and ethical thresholds between normal ageing and dementia. I draw on ethnographic work and analyses of scientific and company literature, informed by STS studies of expectations, hope and ambivalence.

Long abstract

In this paper I examine the central role of pharmaceutical 'failure' in shaping emerging relationships and biological, clinical and bioethical thresholds between normal ageing and dementia. 'Success' has proved elusive in the development of drugs for Alzheimer's disease. Fewer than 1% of those candidates which have entered clinical trials have ultimately been marketed, at a cost of billions of dollars, and uncounted time on the part of clinical trial subjects and researchers. Even when compared with the unspectacular productivity of the wider biopharma industry, Alzheimer's research appears to be struggling. However, as 'success' has been elusive, failure has acquired its own value and promise. Work in STS has drawn attention to the role of pharmaceutical innovation and particularly marketing in shaping practices of regulation, diagnosis and prescription. In this paper, I follow the generative effects of repeated failure in the de- and re-stabilisation of what counts as Alzheimer's disease. I draw on ethnographic work at clinical trial conferences and analyses of scientific and company literature, informed by STS work on expectations, hope and more recently ambivalence. The paper focuses primarily on the story of Eli Lilly's candidate drug solanezumab, following it from discovery to its failure to show efficacy in large phase III trials. In doing so, I point to the co-production of therapeutic objects and subjects, and mediating techniques of assessment which constitute the emerging bioclinical infrastructure through which Alzheimer's disease is produced and reproduced.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.