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Big Tissue and Society

‘Big Tissue’ - the promise and achievement of significant upscale in tissue engineering and biofabrication – is a coming force in biomedicine. This project agrues that Big Tissue represents both a quantitative change (more tissue) and a qualitative change (novel socio-material relationships, politics, and ethics) that require urgent attention as they come into being.

The project is conducting interview, documentary, and observational analysis of four case-studies of fields seeking to produce industrial quantities of tissue for diverse uses: cultured blood, cultured skin, cultured meat, and biofabricated animal products. It is assessing the social, material, and economic context of Big Tissue today and defining the agenda for social science analysis of Big Tissue going forward.

Big Tissue invokes a new wave of bigness to follow the ‘big biology’ of the Human Genome Project and the ‘big data’ of bioinformatics. It represents a paradigm shift in tissue engineering and biofabrication from personalised, autologous, or small-scale interventions towards mass-produced, centrally devised, generic tissues that can be engineered through a diverse range of techniques drawing upon bioprinting, cell suspension bioreactors, and the intersections of synthetic biology and fermentation. Upscale brings with it the potential for novel conceptualisations of tissue and its affective relations, novel promissory narratives, and novel economic and material models of exchange and value.

By analysing and comparing across these four case-studies the analysis of these emergent and imagined socio-material contexts and their implications for societies, economies, and ethics is being subject to critical inspection.


Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Neil Stephens - Dr Neil Stephens is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow focused upon the sociology of biomedicine and Science and Technology Studies. He was based at Cardiff University for many years before joining Brunel University London in 2016. His current project, Big Tissue and Society (funded by the Wellcome Trust), is an analysis of ‘Big Tissue’: the promise and accomplishment of significant upscale in human and animal tissue production. It recognises Big Tissue as a novel socio-technical practice that crosses multiple sectors (e.g. biomedicine, agriculture, conservation) and has a distinct economics, politics and ethics. The project involves interviewing and engaging with scientists, entrepreneurs, and activists in four case-studies: tissue engineered skin, blood, and meat, and biofabricated animal products (such as milk, leather, and rhinoceros horn). The aim is to map and analyse the socio-political context of each case-study in turn, and an accumulative analysis of Big Tissue as a novel overarching category. Neil has worked on multiple other research projects, many in the sociology of biomedicine. Key interests include: Robotic Surgery: Neil’s first project at Brunel was a laboratory ethnography of a team developing tools for application in surgical robotics, with a particular focus upon cochlear implant surgery. This work has explored three key themes: (i) the robotics surgery lab as a sensory space in which knowledge production is an embodied practice, (ii) the development of a sociological understanding of robot autonomy in the surgical setting, and (iii) the representation of futures and politics of robotic surgery as found in both surgical robotics conferences and popular cinema. Mitochondrial Donation: While at Cardiff University in 2015-16, Neil worked with Dr Rebecca Dimond (Cardiff University) to conduct interviews with organisations and individuals active in the policy debate that led to the 2015 legalisation of the mitochondrial donation technique in the UK. The technique uses a form of IVF to remove faulty mitochondria from the germline and prevent subsequent generations of a family inheriting mitochondrial disease. The project mapped the policy activity of key actors in the debate, and resulted in a book published in 2018 titled ‘Legalising Mitochondrial Donation: Enacting ethical futures in UK biomedical politics’. Stem Cell Science: Neil has conducted multiple projects on stem cell science. During 2005-09 Neil worked with Prof Paul Atkinson and Prof Peter Glasner (Cardiff University) to conduct an ethnography of the UK Stem Cell Bank: an institution that holds all human embryonic stem cell lines that are legal for use in the UK and decides who can use them for what purposes. His work explored the standardisation of both technical and ethical aspects of regulatory practice. During 2011-2014 Neil conducted an ethnography of an interdisciplinary group of stem cell scientists, engineers, physicians, and chemists to understand how interdisciplinary groups operate in practice. In 2014-15 Neil conducted an ethnography with a team of bioinformaticians, biologists, and musicians to explore how sound can be added to bioinformatics software to better facilitate the capturing of cell culturing knowledge. Cultured Meat: Taking the stem cell work in a novel direction, since 2008 Neil has worked on an ongoing project exploring the social world of meat grown in the laboratory, known as in vitro, cultured, or clean meat. He conducted over 40 interviews with people active in the field and attended key meetings. His work from this time explored how accounts of what cultured meat ‘is’, and what it could accomplish, emerge in parallel with the social worlds it occupies. This programme of work is currently being continued and expanded in Neil’s current Big Tissue and Society project. Biobanking: In addition to the ethnography of the UK Stem Cell Bank, Neil conducted an interview study with an anonymous biobank during the two year period that the bank closed. This allowed him to produce a distinct analysis of what happens as biobanks close and how the tissue holdings are dispersed.  Other STS projects Neil has engaged in include an ethnographic study of the March for Science through London in 2017, the accomplishment of Big Data science (specifically in biology), and his PhD (Cardiff University) that explored the social construction of macroeconomic knowledge, specifically the ‘Phillips Curve’ relationship between unemployment and inflation between the 1950s and 1980s. Outside of STS, Neil has contributed to a major piece of research conducted with Dr Sara Delamont (Cardiff University) on the African-Brazilian martial art/game/fight Capoeira, in an ongoing project since 2004. The team uses UK based Capoeira classes to explore issues of embodiment, teaching, and globalised culture. During this work Neil adopted the role of the embodied ethnographer – doing the basic steps, kicks, and cartwheels, and playing the musical instruments - of Capoeira while Sara Delamont recorded observational fieldnotes. The project was published as a book in 2017 titled ‘Embodying Brazil: An ethnography of diasporic capoeira’.  Finally, Neil also has multiple publications on qualitative methods related to his studies in STS, the sociology of biomedicine, and capoeira.

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Project last modified 29/06/2021