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Cesagen · Research

The UK Stem Cell Bank: An Institutional Ecology

Neil Stephens

Start date


Affiliated staff

Paul Atkinson, Peter Glasner


The UK Stem Cell Bank is the first institution of its type in the world: a publicly funded body to store and distribute ethically sourced human embryonic stem cell lines internationally. Opening in 2004 it has become a significant site for developing international best practice for hold and moving stem cells between countries.


Our project sought to understand how the UK Stem Cell Bank

  1. established the provenance of these ethically controversial cells,
  2. instantiated novel and emergent regulatory frameworks for human embryonic stem cells, and
  3. engaged and contributed to international standard setting in the field.
To this end a comparative element was developed with the national stem cell bank in Spain.


The project conducted a three year ethnography of the UK Stem Cell Bank and associated organisations. This involved interviews with members of the Bank’s staff and key stakeholders, observations at meetings (including the UK Stem Cell Bank's Steering Committee), and documentary analysis of regulations, guidelines and publications.


The UK Stem Cell Bank Steering Committee makes decisions about the provenance of deposited human embryonic stem cell lines through forming networks of trust. Both the UK Stem Cell Bank and the Steering Committee perform legitimate public practice through demonstrations of distance intended to prevent conflicts of interest. This is present in the organisational structures and the approach to media engagements. These practices are premised upon a specific view of what UK and international stakeholders value in a scientific and regulatory organisation.This stands in contrast to the Spanish Stem Cell Bank where distance not valued in the same way. Instead the Spanish Bank prioritises performing engagement and involvement in world leading science, again based upon a specific view of what Spanish and international stakeholders value in their organisation.The UK Stem Cell Bank was among the first UK institutions to establish high grade GMP laboratory practices for human embryonic stem cells. This posed significant regulatory problems as neither regulators nor the laboratories could articulate a clear account of what form such a laboratory should take. On going negotiation between all stakeholders led to an agreed regulatory position.


Stephens, N., Atkinson, P., and Glasner, P. (forthcoming) ‘Stem Cell Banks and the International movement of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Lines’, Revue D'anthropologie des Connaissances (in French)Stephens, N. (forthcoming) ‘Civic epistemology and the Spanish and UK Stem Cell Banks’, Science as CultureStephens, N (2010) ‘Addressing uncertainty in UK Stem Cell Science regulation’ Research Fortnight, available here 

Stephens, N., Chekar, C. K., and Lewis, J. (2009) ‘Global Issues, Regional Engagement: Discussing Stem Cells in Context’ event hosted at the National Assembly for Wales, 19th May 2009’, The Gen ESRC Genomics Network Newsletter

Stephens, N. Atkinson, P., and Glasner, P. (2008) 'The UK Stem Cell Bank as Performative Architecture' New Genetics and Society vol. 27 p87-99Eriksson, L. Stephens, N. and Webster, A (2008) Stem Cell Spaces, Places and Flows editors introduction to special edition of New Genetics and Society vol. 27 p83-7Stephens, N. Atkinson, P. and Glasner, P. (2008) The UK Stem Cell Bank: Securing the past, validating the present, protecting the future Science as Culture vol. 17 p43-56Stephens, N. (2008) 'Internationalising Stem Cell Banking? : Challenges in harmonising the international movement of human embryonic stem cells', The Gen ESRC Genomics Network Newsletter, March 2008, pp 28-30

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