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Life inter vivos: modeling regeneration in the relation between bodies and biomaterials

Abstract

Biomaterials—or substances designed to interact with living tissues without stimulating an immune response—gather tissue culture technologies and regeneration research together. In doing so, these man-made materials tether the technological capacity to manipulate and modify living matter outside of bodies to the longstanding ambition in biology to comprehend, and possibly conduct, the physiological capacity of some organisms to repair or to restore themselves following injury or disease. Drawing upon participant-observation with life and material scientists in Dresden, Germany, this article presents a case of an ongoing collaboration between a neuro-regeneration laboratory researching Alzheimer’s disease and a biomaterials institute fabricating novel materials for tissue engineering. Their efforts illustrate how the current incorporation of biomaterials into experimentation on the biology of regeneration is reconfiguring previously established relations among life forms: relations within, between, and beyond the bodily bounds of organisms. In attending to the new relationships being forged between the biological and chemical sciences, their technologies for manipulating living matter, and their evolving conceptions of life, I argue for an anthropological approach to life and science inter vivos—one conceived in the relations between laboratories, disciplines, and experimental forms of both embodied and disembodied life.

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Notes

  1. Originally published in French in 1865, from Claude Bernard’s An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1927, p. 18).

  2. For a philosophical history of regeneration research as an intimate aspect of 19th century German embryology, see Lenoir (2011). For an anthropological account of the emergence of adult neurogenesis—the regenerative neuroplasticity of human brains—as a scientific fact, see Rees (2017, 2010). On the emergence of the field of adult cerebral plasticity and its relationship to promissory therapeutics like the regenerative medicine I engage here, see Rubin (2009). On the history of the modern biological concept of regeneration shifting relative to notions of species, generation, and reproduction, see Müller-Wille and Rheinberger (2013, pp. 34–35) and Jacob (1998, pp. 67–74).

  3. See, on these various forms of models, modeling, and modelers in the life, natural, and human sciences, Hesse (1970), Haraway (1997), Lévi-Strauss (1966, 1983), Canguilhem (1963), Gell (1992), Morgan and Morrison (1999), Fox-Keller (2002), Rheinberger (2010), Deleuze and Guattari (1994), Dumit (2016), Myers (2015), Rose and Abi-Rached (2013), Kelty (2012). On particular model organisms and animal models in the life sciences, see De Chadarevian (1998), Leonelli and Ankeny (2013), Ankeny and Leonelli (2011), De Chadarevian and Hopwood (2004), Creager (2002), Rader (2004), Haraway (1997), Jacob (1998), Kohler (1994).

  4. See Foucault (1994) on the inauguration of ‘life itself’ as object and category vis-à-vis the emergence of biology in the nineteenth century. See also Rose (2007) for a sustained engagement with the intersection of ‘life itself,’ subjectivity, and neurological and cognitive sciences as well as Franklin (Franklin 2012) for ‘life itself,’ (human) nature, and genetics.

  5. The designation refers to the fact that the area around Dresden did not, like the rest of the former East, receive any (illegal but available) Western television programming.

  6. When the institute was founded in 1921 as part of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft (KWG), the biochemist Max Bergmann was its director. When Carsten Werner re-established his own Institute of Biofunctional Polymers within the IPF as the Max Bergmann Center for Biomaterials in 2002, he made several research trips to the Rockefeller Foundation Archives in New York. The Rockefeller Institute had facilitated Bergmann’s escape from National Socialism. Upon meeting Carsten and learning that an institute in Dresden would be named after her husband, Bergmann’s widow gifted Bergmann’s desk—a Bauhaus style beauty—to Carsten, at which he sits each day.

  7. Clean, meaning, had not really been a party member.

  8. (derived, in their case, from pig intestines).

  9. In “The Living and Its Milieu,” Canguilhem et al. (2008) articulates an orientation to living beings that seriously asserts that “it is characteristic of the living that it makes its milieu for itself, that it composes its milieu” (111). Thinking with Canguilhem oriented me to the uniqueness of the insight that anchors, in part, Carsten’s group’s approach to the material science of cell biology: their attention to ECM takes seriously the ways cells compose their milieu out of themselves. Viewed as being both the living and milieu, cells and cultures epitomize what I’m calling life in the relation or inter vivos.

  10. With the exception of Gregor Mendel, who was ignored.

  11. On “discourse of gene action” and its transformation in molecular biology, as well as introduction of cybernetic thought into biology, see Fox Keller (1995, 2002). For elaboration of informational semiotics and its introduction in biological discourse vis-à-vis Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod, see Rheinberger (2010), chapter 10, Jacob and Monod (1961), and Jacob (1970). On import of cybernetics for biological thought and ‘ideologies’ after genetics, see Canguilhem (1988).

  12. Current approaches in systems biology are one attempt at a corrective, one which would not radically disrupt the underlying genetic view of development, but which could provide a level of descriptive complexity more adequate to the immense interactivity, plasticity, and multifunctionality of genes in organismal life—a view that Gunther Stent, both presciently and somewhat remarkably, was already forewarning in the early 1980 s against the genetic optimism of Sydney Brenner and Seymour Benzer (Benzer 1971; Brenner 1974; Gilbert 2010; Moss 2003; Stent 1981, 1985).

  13. Landecker (2016) writes, citing Georges Canguilhem: “A history of surrounds could be termed an epigenetic history, attentive to the material and theoretical implications flowing from contemporary theories concerning the biologically constitutive role of life’s conditions. At stake is understanding the role of dish and cage environments in constituting the experimental life forms through which scientific knowledge is pursued, and a broader historical and philosophical perspective in which the milieu is a central object of inquiry” (149).

  14. Kizil elaborates on this hypothesis in an early review paper on “Adult Neurogenesis and Brain Regeneration in Zebrafish:” “It is often assumed that regeneration may recapitulate the developmental programs. Although there is substantial evidence for this hypothesis…we also identified a gene, the expression of which is injury-dependent in a specific region of the adult zebrafish brain. This suggests that zebrafish regenerative capacity may also involve the ability to activate special programs under extraordinary conditions of injury—and employ them to regenerate lost tissues. The notion of ‘injury-induced regeneration-specific molecular programs’ may receive more support as we better understand the genes that are involved in the zebrafish regeneration response, and what these genes do following an injury in non-regenerating organisms” (Kizil et al. 2012, p. 447). The data for the injury-induced regeneration-specific gene, GATA3, were published in Kizil et al. 2012. In 2019, however, Caghan published the results of a test of that genetic program on neurogenesis in a humanized in vitro model for injury specific conditions, and while GATA3—the injury-induced regeneration-specific gene—was found to be “required for enhancing the neurogenic potential of primary human astrocytes,” i.e. it participated in or was active for human neurogenesis following injury, it was not “sufficient to induce neurogenesis alone” Celikkaya et al. 2019, p. 1). It should be observed, given the above example, that the approach to regeneration as genetically distinct from, if related to, development, has yielded candidates in multiple arenas. But it is the approach and not necessarily any specific molecular program that is productive of this line of experimental work.

  15. This observation is itself in differential relation, anthropological, to Rees (2017), which situates the emergence of neuroplasticity as a biological fact of adult mammalian (and human) brains in the “embryogenetic terms” of developmental cell biology.

  16. I understand the ‘living technologies,’ invented to satisfy the experimental system for regeneration research under examination here, as both a contemporary instantiation of and as differential developments from the genealogy of in vitro systems—and their adjacent laboratory forms of living matter—which Landecker (2009) elaborates upon and analyzes in her history of cell culture.

  17. Patricia Churchland (1986) argued for the reduction of mental states to neurobiology. By the publication of Braintrust (Churchland 2011), however, her hardline reductionism of the psy to the bio in things neural had softened to a relative or reformed reductionism. Bruno Latour (2004), on the other hand, mobilizes Isabella Stengers’ reading of Alfred Whitehead in order to demonstrate “how impossible it is for a reductionist science to be reductionist” (p. 226). He counters positions like Churchland’s while jocularly alluding to her husband, Paul Churchland’s, propensity to carry a picture of his wife in his wallet: the picture being an image of her PET scan. On PET scans and the import of imaging technologies and brain talk on behavior and experience, see Dumit (2004).

  18. It is important to note that while Caghan Kizil’s group’s research on neurodegenerative diseases accrues authority (and visibility) among established Alzheimer’s researchers by referencing the Amyloid hypothesis and by modeling the disease as Amyloid toxicity both in vivo and in vitro, his approach both to regeneration and to neurodegenerative disease subtly challenges this dominant “neuro-centric view of the disease.” They write that “in recent years, it is becoming more evident that in AD pathology the neuronal proteopathy might be an endpoint and several non-neuronal changes could precede the onset of the disease in neurons,” and that “although pathogenic effects of Aβ42 in neurons are well studied, little is known about how Aβ42 impairs NSC plasticity, what is the involvement of neuro-immune crosstalk in these processes, and how we can restore NSC plasticity and neurogenic activity in AD. Such questions might diversity the therapeutic approaches for AD” (Papadimitriou et al. 2018, pp. 85–86).

  19. Anthropology inter vivos grapples with participants—both scientific people like Caghan and Carsten and living forms in experimental science like biomaterial cultures and Alzheimer’s fish—whose own inquiries today proceed in consonance with the lessons on hybridity and artificiality that Haraway and Rabinow articulated a generation ago. It (I) aims then, from the interstices, to orient to its interlocutory subjects’ (visions of) worlds (living forms) through an anthropology that “means to study with people, not to make studies of them,” as Tim Ingold (2017) recently put it.

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Acknowledgements

I wish to express my gratitude to Cori Hayden, Daniel Fisher, Jerry Zee, and Melissa Salm for their careful readings of early drafts of this article, to Talia Dan-Cohen for inviting me to present at the AAA’s, and to Lawrence Cohen, Aihwa Ong, and Paul Rabinow for their enduring support and mentorship. Finally, I thank Carsten Werner for not only opening the doors of the IPF to me, but for opening my mind as well to ways of seeing that I had not previously known. You inspired me.

Funding

Funding was provided by Wenner-Gren Foundation (Grant No. 9327).

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Coren, G.G. Life inter vivos: modeling regeneration in the relation between bodies and biomaterials. BioSocieties 17, 169–202 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-020-00206-4

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Keywords

  • Regenerative medicine
  • Tissue engineering
  • Science and technology studies (STS)
  • Biomaterials
  • Dresden, German
  • Model organisms