Home > (neo)liberalism, bio-, biopoliitika, Melinda Cooper > Melinda Cooper “Resuscitations: Stem Cells and the Crisis of Old Age”

Melinda Cooper “Resuscitations: Stem Cells and the Crisis of Old Age”

Cooper, Melinda 2006. Resuscitations: Stem Cells and the Crisis of Old Age. Body & Society 12(1): 1-23.

In 1961, the biologists Hayflick and Moorhead demonstrated that cells excised from normal adult
tissue can only divide a finite number of times in culture before entering a state of quiescence, the stages involved going by the evocative names of ‘crisis’, ‘replicative senescence’ and ‘mortality stage 1’ (Shostak, 2002: 26). For the first time, ‘senescence’ had been identified and observed as a process unfolding within the cell, at least when it was cultured in vitro. Moorhead and Hayflick later confirmed these findings in vivo by transplanting cell lines from one animal to another, and proposed that the difference between the finite and indefinite life spans of cell lines could be translated into a clinical distinction between normal and pathological (cancerous) growth. Immortalization, they concluded, was the hallmark of the pathological cell line. (1)

Where Hayflick had come up against ultimate limits to growth, new directions in research were beginning to refigure the ‘crisis’ point as a tenuous threshold between absolute limits and overexpansive growth, too much life and too much death (Landecker, 2003). In general, though, the capacity of certain cells in certain situations to ‘out-survive’ the ‘crisis’ of senescence was still associated with malignant and cancerous growth. Pathological immortalization was the exception that confirmed the rule. (2)

In November 1998, James A. Thomson announced that he had successfully isolated human embryonic cells capable of continuous division in culture and showing no signs of entering ‘replicative crisis’ (Thomson et al., 1998: 1145). This, he thought, demonstrated that certain non-pathological cells (defined as stem cells) were capable of indefinite, ‘immortalized’ division in vitro. Implicitly at least – though the consequences are just beginning to be felt – the cultivation of the ES cell as an experimental life-form has undermined prevailing assumptions about cellular life and death. (2-3)

[…] stem cell research homes in on the points of non-coincidence between ageing in general and the body’s multiple reserves of renewable tissue, uncovering a kind of latent ‘surplus’ life, even in the most worn-out of bodies: At the moment, a cell’s history of divisions is not easily tied to its death, and no less to the death of the organism. Cells generally, and stem cells in particular, simply have not run out of their prescribed number of cell divisions at the time the organism dies. (Shostak, 2002: 28) (3)

Biological senescence as the ultimate limit to growth. (4)

The extension of patent rights to cover biological life meant that the agricultural and pharmaceutical sectors – faced with falling returns on chemical inventions and petrochemical commodities – could invest in the emergent field of biotechnics, reinventing themselves as clean ‘life science’ companies and overcoming the declining profits associated with industrial waste (if not waste itself). (7)

If ‘life itself’ – conceived of as autopoiesis – has become the inescapable model of accumulation for celebrants of neo-liberalism, it is no doubt because the biotechnological solution to economic limits seems to encapsulate the speculative euphoria of revalorization at the most intimate of material levels. At the same time that it writes off the inorganic matter consumed and left over by industrial production, post-Fordism attempts to reanimate the whole of matter – the garbage heap of industrial waste, from cadavers to fossil fuels – within the process of its own selfvalorization. (Witness the interest in various biotechnological solutions for transforming toxic industrial waste into biodegradable matter.) (7-8)

What Georgescu-Roezen wrote off as irrevocable non-value (the depleted, dead, inorganic matter of the second law), the eco-capitalists redefine as temporarily depotentialized life, awaiting its future resuscitation. Far from posing an ultimate limit to biological and economic productivity, waste can and should be eliminated, according to the theorists of natural capitalism. (8)

This is not so much a final eradication of waste as its fractalization: if there is no end to the revaluation of waste, there can also be no end to its production (just as fractal geometry traces a curve which continually deflects the limit-point or tangent). (9)

Echoing the language of the eco-capitalists, industry reports present regenerative medicine as a means of exploiting the inherent healing capacities of the body in order to overcome the wasting and degenerative processes associated with old age. As the developmental biologist, Shostak, succinctly puts it: „Thermodynamic irreversibility would seem to underlie many kinds of senescence…. The solution would seem to be to avoid old age entirely.” (2002: 161) (9)

Last but not least in the long list of limits to be overcome is the figure of the person as a biological constraint on the actualization of life’s potentialities. As one biologist has pointed out in response to pro-life activists, stem cell research is not fundamentally interested in the production of a person, who as a limit over-determining the progressive differentiation of cells can only represent a waste of life’s incalculable possibilities of self-regeneration (Pederson, 1999: 47). (10)

The point [of regenerative medecine], according to a recent introduction to tissue engineering, is no longer to supplement biological life with the spare parts of the industrial machine but to ‘reawaken’ the body’s latent capacity for self-regeneration (Bell, 2000). (10)

[…] for the commercial life sciences, including the pharmaceutical sector, what counts is no longer the scale and volume of the market in tangible bio-commodities, but rather the speculative accumulation of a future ‘innovation’ value – a surplus of life, information and profit. In short, what is at stake and what is new in the contemporary bio-sciences is not so much the ultimate commodification of ‘life itself’ – this is a foregone conclusion – but rather its transformation into a source of speculative surplusvalue. (11)

[…] the relatively recent tradition of patent law reflects a fundamental division of labour between technical production and biological life. Between the 17th and the late 19th centuries, patent law defined the act of invention as a transformation of inorganic matter, thus excluding both the laws of nature and biological reproduction of all kinds (plant, animal, human) from the sphere of the machinic in general. (11)

Regenerative medicine is not so much interested in the reproduction of the human person as in the stem cell’s capacity for multiple differentiation and indefinite renewal, in excess of the developmental limits of human morphology. If biologists are increasingly defining the embryonic stem cell as a kind of protolife, the initial and ultimate source of all human (re)generation, they also distinguish it from the reproduction of the germ-line and the transmission of personal humanness. As one stem cell specialist has written, the embryonic stem cell line is ‘not equivalent’ to the potential person in its powers of development (Pederson, 1999: 47). It is, therefore, patentable, according to existing legal definitions of invention. (13)

in 2001, the US PTO issued patent number 6200806 over ‘a purified preparation of pluripotent human embryonic stem cells’ and the method used to isolate it – a patent that is so extensive as to cover all human embryonic stem cells and the cells that derive from them. The historical importance of this decision cannot be overestimated. For the first time, a generic process of human (re)generation, common to all bodies, has been incorporated into the laws of invention – even while it spares the figure of the person. What is at stake here is a profound legal reconfiguration of the value of human biological life. The potential person will not be commodified – but the surplus life of the immortalized human stem cell will enter into the circuits of patentable invention. (13)

In an illuminating conceptual introduction to the field of stem cell research, the developmental biologists Loeffler and Potten note that the defining attributes of the stem cell lie not so much in the inherent properties of a particular cell but rather in the horizon of future potentialities of which a cell is capable in a given experimental context: ‘stemness is not a property but a spectrum of possibilities’, possibilities that unfold in an uncertain future and can only be ‘discovered’ through the very process of experimentation (Loeffler and Potten, 1997: 1, 2, 13–14.) We can’t even claim to know whether or not a given cell is actually a stem cell, the same introduction claims, before we start testing its future possibilities – a stem cell, in other words, is defined in speculative terms, by what it might be able to do, rather than what it is. (15)

[…] ‘life itself’ is capable of overcoming all limits to growth – but of course its actual economic value lies not so much in its powers of self-regeneration as in the formulation of an essentially new form of property right, designed to capture its future possibilities of growth – even when they defy prediction. […] Life at its most unpredictable will have been pre-capitalized. (16)

One pharmaceutical CEO has described the patented cell line as the ‘currency of the future’ (quoted in Andrews and Nelkin, 2001). Increasingly we are being confronted with the problem of thinking about and resisting forms of property that claim to own life in its futurity, before it has emerged into morphological form. (16)

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