Sociology has always had a strong interest in medicine, and more recently, in the impact of the new biomedical sciences on medicine. An emerging area for sociological inquiry is Regenerative Medicine (RM) which Andrew Webster has already published on. Its distinctive feature is the use of live cells and tissues to treat disease, replacing diseased tissue and organs with new, healthy and specially-grown tissue. There has been considerable social and political controversy surrounding the use of cells, especially embryonic stem cells, but these debates have largely subsided, and now RM is widely heralded as potential source of cures for a range of illnesses.
The field of RM, however, is still very much in its infancy, and there are very few therapies available in the present day. Clinicians and investigators working on new RM therapies are encountering many significant challenges relating to financing, manufacturing, regulation, and organisational inertia. These pose important questions that sociology can address, especially in terms of how healthcare systems such as the NHS may – or indeed, may not – embrace and embed biomedical innovation.
Equally importantly, RM raises questions about ‘Life’, in the form of tissues and cells, and how this is being manipulated, harnessed and in some cases commercialised in the name of ‘health and wealth’. Simultaneously, new social groups and agencies are forming to govern and facilitate this harnessing of life. From a sociological standpoint, we may ask: how do these novel forms of life reflect their cultural context? How do they change the boundaries of what is seen as ‘life’ itself? What discourses are being mobilised to promote innovation? What novel social organisations are emerging, and how do these upset or reaffirm traditional professional divisions? Whose viewpoints and interests are being heard, and whose are being ignored? And more broadly: how exactly are social concerns and technological developments intertwined and shaping one another?
It is these types of questions that are being addressed by our ESRC-fundedREGenableMED project. The project team comprises ten researchers from the Universities of York (Andrew Webster, Graham Lewis and John Gardner), Edinburgh, Birmingham and Sussex, with specific expertise in science and technologies studies, law, commercialisaiton, and technology horizon scanning. The three year project is now into its second year, and we have been interviewing a range of stakeholders in the RM field, as well as collecting reams of secondary data on clinical and commercial activity, much of which is being collated in an extensive database. Our first paper, which explores the perceived novelty of RM will soon be published in RegenerativeMedicine in September. Ultimately, we hope that our broad, sociological perspective on the field will enable us to inform and guide responsible innovation in the area.