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Cesagen · Research

Local cells, global science: Embryonic stem cell research in India

Peter Glasner

Start date


Affiliated staff

Aditya Bharadwaj


The potential for human exploitation, unfair trade practices, and morally contentious biogenetic research in the area of stem cell technology in nations of the global south is significant. This project, funded by a grant of £15,000.00 from CESAGen between 2004-2006, examined, for the first time, the transnational movement of tissues, stem cells and scientific expertise in the context of nascent governance frameworks regulating research and development of biotechnology in India. The research aimed to understand the extent to which the global advances of the new biotechnologies shape, and become shaped by, transnational collaborations. It traced the journey of ‘spare’ human embryos from the point of conception in In-vitro Fertilisation (IVF) Clinics to public and private research laboratories engaged in isolating stem cells in India, to laboratories in India and elsewhere, developing potential therapeutic applications for local and global consumption.


Key questions included:

  • In what way do the global demands for stem cell lines impact on the local production of stem cell technology in India?
  • How are biogenic materials harvested and procured for research?
  • What effect does this have on issues of privacy, confidentiality and discrimination?
  • How are the resultant tissues and knowledge traded, consumed and exchanged in international arenas?


To facilitate this, interviews were undertaken with donors and staff based in these clinics, and scientists in key public and private stem cell laboratories, in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Various government officials in the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Department of Biotechnology were interviewed as well as 40 current and potential embryo donors in IVF clinics. Fieldwork was also carried out in the Delhi clinic of stem cell clinician Dr Geeta Shroff who, at her request, was the only respondent not to be anonymised.

The field work was undertaken by Dr Adi Bharadwaj, who is a fluent Hindi speaker, and has the necessary ethnographic research experience in India to conduct, transcribe and translate any non-English interview material.


  • Stem cells effectively no longer have a history: they have only a future not a past, particularly in India where provenance issues are hidden.
  • Stem cells are geographically dissociated from their place of origin and presented as ‘denatured’ objects in later time through freezing.
  • The locality in the site of production effectively disguises the globally dispersed forces that actually drive the production process
  • Embedded in the transnational movement of tissues, stem cells and scientific expertise between North and South, there is a technoscape in motion facilitating the rapid growth of the ‘supply chain’ of stem cell technology within the Indian sub-continent.
  • The engine that keeps the supply chain on the move is a moral economy in stem cells driven by the global North.



Bharadwaj, A. and Glasner, P. (2009) Local Cells, Global Science. The Rise of Embryonic Stem Cell Research in India, London: Routledge.


Glasner, P. (2005) ‘Banking on Immortality? Exploring the stem cell supply chain from embryo to therapeutic application’, Current Sociology, 53 (2), pp 355-366.

Bharadwaj, A. (2005) ‘Cultures of Embryonic Stem Cell Research in India’. In W. Bender et al (Eds) Crossing Borders: Cultural, Religious and Political Differences Concerning Stem Cell Research, Munster: Agenda Verlag. 

Glasner, P. (2007) ‘Cowboy cloners, mavericks and kings: A cautionary tale of a promissory science’, 21st Century Society: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, 3 (2), pp 265-274.

Bharadwaj, A. (2007) ‘Biosociality and Bio-Crossings: Encounters with Assisted Conception and Embryonic Stem Cells in India’. In S. Gibbon and C. Novas. (eds) Genetics, Biosociality and the Social Sciences: Making Biologies and Identities, London: Routledge.Glasner, P. (2009) ‘Cellular Division: Social and Political Complexity in Indian Stem Cell Research’ in H. Gottweis (ed) ‘Biopolitics in Asia’, Special Issue of New Genetics and Society, 28 (3), pp 283-296.Stephens, N., Atkinson, P. and Glasner, P. (2011 - forthcoming) ‘Globalising Standards, Banking on Trust: Stem cell banking in three national systems’ in Anthropologie de Connaisssance. 

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