Project 1: Storing Vitality, Ensuring Health

Researcher: Ruzana Liburkina

Umbilical cord blood (UCB) is a rich source of haematopoietic (i.e. blood-forming) stem and progenitor cells used in treating a variety of serious disorders. Collection takes place by immediate clamping of the umbilical cord after birth. In the early 2000s, regenerative medicine emerged as a promissory biomedical field and speculation about future treatments using stem cells fuelled the rapid rise of commercial cord blood banking. Private cryobanks provide services for autologous applications (i.e. using one’s own UCB) for either specific disease indications (cancer or rare genetic diseases) or anticipated regenerative therapies that might be available in the future (to cure conditions ranging from tissue damage to neurodegenerative diseases to blood disorders).

The ethnographic study in this subproject will focus on the speculative value of cryopreserved UCB. By exploring the promissory dimensions of cryopreserved UCB, this case study will examine the regimes of prevention informing UCB banking. This case study is uniquely placed to explore how the “suspended life” of UCB intersects with moral, religious, political and commercial practices. Fieldwork will be done in facilities of private and public UCB banks. It will include participant observation of the collection, testing, processing, freezing, storage and use of UCB as well as interviews with women who have banked in the cord blood banks under investigation, with staff and lab scientists involved with the processing and cryopreservation of UCB and with healthcare providers who have assisted with UCB collection. 

Project 2: Postponing Pregnancy, Extending Fertility

Researcher: Sara Lafuente-Funes

Cryopreservation plays a fundamental role in assisted reproduction today, as it allows to store and easily transport of sperm, embryos and eggs. This preservation of reproductive capacity through time (and across space) constitutes an essential characteristic of cryobanking and Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs). While sperm has been cryopreserved successfully for a long time, it was only very recently that oocytes became cryopreservable with similar success rates through vitrification, making their freezing a widespread option. Freezing of oocytes was initially offered to women facing cancer treatment or other fertility-impairing conditions. Today it is increasingly being used for so-called non-medical or social reasons: women freezing their eggs to extend their fertility potentiality over time. The novelty of the “social use” of this technology urgently calls for empirical study.

The ethnographic study of egg freezing for the CRYOSOCIETIES project will focus on Spain. This country has emerged as one of the main reproductive hubs in Europe and internationally in the last years. The subproject will study the reasoning behind women’s decisions to store their eggs as well as the role oocyte cryopreservation plays within the clinics studied and the broader reproductive sector. Our aim is to see how practices of egg freezing are linked to certain ways of thinking and enacting time, working and family life cycles: how do considerations behind freezing eggs connect to broader socio-political rationalities? How does egg freezing redifine (in)fertility? How are reproductive decision-making processes altered by this cryotechnology?

Project 3: Protecting Biodiversity, Resisting Extinction

Researcher: Veit Braun

Applications for cryopreservation are not limited to human material. They also encompass archives collecing gametes, tissue or DNA of plants and animals. In recent decades, the accelerating extinction of species has led to an enormous effort to collect and store specimens, relying on cryotechnological procedures. The aim is to preserve biodiversity by deep-freezing organic material of endangered or extinct species. Such cryobanks are more than sites of conservation and storage as they also provide the material resources for the potential resurrection of extinct species. These strategies of reanimation—known as “resurrection biology” or “de-extinction science”—are supposed to “bring back to life” species that are already extinct by the use of reproductive and genetic technologies (e.g. embryo transfer, intergenic surrogacy and cloning)

The ethnography in this project focuses on two British initiatives, the Frozen Ark charity and the CryoArks biobank. Observing the activities aimed at halting extinction by securing a frozen “backup” of animal specimens in both projects, it examines the ambivalent prospects of “conservation” and “resurrection” in the cryopreservation of species. The subproject follows the human and non-human actors involved in endeavours to protect and reanimate threatened species. Through participant observation in labs, cryobanks and consortiums as well as through interviews with zoologists, conservation biologists, environmentalists and researchers working in the field of de-extinction science, it explores the ways in which knowledge about the “suspended life” of frozen animal specimens shapes conservation concerns and practices.

Project 4: Theory and Methods of Cryopreservation-in-Practice

Researcher: Thomas Lemke
This subproject will trace the multifold crossings of cryopreservation practices with contemporary forms of government, and use these findings to advance the theoretical debate on modes and dimensions of biopolitics in the 21st century. Systematically examining the relations between forms of life and cryotechnological practices will also contribute to our knowledge on different trajectories of “suspended life” and on how they come to matter in societies that rely heavily on life science innovations and cryogenic infrastructures. In addition, the subproject will provide conceptual tools to critically assess the speculative, imaginary, or promissory dimensions of “suspended life”

The research questions addressed by CRYOSOCIETIES also necessitate a broader discussion of information technologies and the cultural context of networked life in general. The subproject will examine the intersections of informational and biological knowledge, in order to analyse how the idea of a “back-up” guides and shapes cryobanking practices. It will also analyse how contemporary data infrastructures and archiving technologies support the cryobanks under investigation, attending to their performative and political dimensions. The subproject will also examine practices of cryobanking in the light of the current hype about “big data” and the challenges it entails to traditional forms of scientific practice. Finally, the subproject will also analyse interdependencies and interrelations between cryobiological processes and freezing and cooling practices in other domains (food, air conditioning etc.). Identifying these links will not only advance our theoretical understanding of this phenomenon, but also suggest methodological refinements to the study of the impact of cryotechnological practices in other contexts.