Cells, ethics and societal innovation

Workpackage 6  : Cells, ethics and societal innovation

Lead by CEVIPOF (Virginie Tournay) and INSERM UMR 1027 (Alessandro Blasimme)

The utilization of human body parts as therapeutic material is not entirely new in the history of medicine. However, present day cellular medicine is truly innovative,as it is based on the idea that cells can be treated as drugs. For example, cells coming from a patient who is affected by a genetic disorder, can now be engineered to correct the genetic defect and thus be used in the patient in order to cure the disease.

Moreover, cells can be extracted from a patient or a donor, be chemically pushed to produce the specific kind of cells that the patient needs, and finally be (re)infused in the patient where they can repair a damaged organ or tissue. Yet, as science becomes increasingly more proficient in altering the biological characteristics of cells extracted from human beings, concerns intensify over the possibility of potentially dangerous side effects due to those technical manipulations once the altered cells are re-injected in a patient. Reducing this kind of risks and to allowing cellular medicine to develop is therefore a major challenge.

Our work stems from the consideration that this challenge is far from being a purely technical or scientific one. Quite to the contrary, it requires the elaboration of specific and often conflicting regulatory, ethical and political ideas, strategies and imaginaries about how cellular medicine should look like, how patients should be protected and how researchers and companies should be overseen.

This social component – that is deeply intertwined with the scientific one and with its uncertainties – is apparent in the present debates about the provision of unproven stem cell therapies directly to patients ahead of clinical certification, as well as in discussions concerning the impact of current European legislations on the development of new cellular therapies.
The development of an emerging field of innovation like cellular therapy can thus be seen as a grand technological project for Europe – one that reflects the way in which different actors are imagining its future today and, in particular, the role of science in the realization of the social good.
Our aim is to reconstruct such imaginaries by analysing the discussions and controversies they give rise to. We are therefore interested in the emergence of new ideas and new social practices around the therapeutic potential of human cells. In this way, we will uncover hidden assumptions, unexamined imperatives and taken-for-granted objectives that may actually limit the expected outcome of cellular therapy or steer it in socially undesirable directions. Our work will eventually translate into specific policy recommendations to address these tensions from a regulatory point of view.



  1. Collect data about ethically relevant social changes
  2. Connect with relevant stakeholders
  3. Organize a workshop
  4. Produce a strategic document with recommendations