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  • Writer's pictureLyndsey Walsh

The Teratoma Will Always Return

Blog post disclaimer and crediting: The research and topics discussed in this post relate to the work and research published in Lyndsey Walsh's Thesis entitled "Generating Monsters: The Materiality and Aesthetics of Stem Cell Potential" as presented and awarded in 2018 MSc. in Biological Arts with Distinction from SymbioticA Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts at the University of Western Australia.

A photo of two embryonic stem cell bodies floating in a liquid medium. The background of the image is dark green. Left to right: a pale pinkish beige entity with two big black protrusions  and bubbly like tendrils coming out of its round body and a pale pinkish beige entity with a rounded "head that has two black protrusions like eyes and bubbly tendrils coming out of it and a low rounded "body" with more bubbly tendrils coming out of it.
Retinal Organoids, 2018, Lyndsey Walsh

The figure of the monster lurks in the peripheries of our gaze. Its latent presence haunts the realms of knowable truths and has become both an object of epistemic obsession and a villain to taxonomic order.

The teratoma, a mass of mixed tissues that can either be malignant or benign in its biological potency, is a special kind of monster. The word teratoma comes from the Greek teras, meaning monster, and -oma, meaning tumor having been coined by German physician Rudolf Virchow in 1863. This tumor is unique in that it is often characterized by its ability to become a mass of cells capable of growing teeth, hair, and other recognizable organ-like structures and often is generated from germ line cells that also can give rise to what we know to be embryonal stem cells. However, the legacy of the teratoma extends well beyond the scope of medical interests in diseases and tumors, and it has proven itself to be an ever-present figure that only momentarily recedes into the shadows of a cultural collective consciousness before re-emerging.

This process that I liken to the inevitable return of the monster in the US horror genre, which has been further elaborated on in Christian Knöppler’s book “The Monster Always Returns: American Horror Films and Their Remakes”. Knöppler acknowledges that while in the context of film discourse, these remakes and returns of the monster fall short of critical praise, they serve an important cultural function of updating and accessing what he calls “otherwise obscure cultural fears”.

The teratoma is a monster that I have found haunts and returns to wreak havoc on the study and material potential of stem cells. It is a monster that both resists and rebels against neoliberal capitalist agendas aiming to assert financial and economic control over the potential avenues of scientific and medical research on stem cells. The teratoma embodies a horrific threat to technoscientific visions of what Sociologist Melinda Cooper has coined as the “not-yet realized surplus of life” in her book “Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era” which promotes the notion of a kind of biological potential full of promises and capable of being harnessed to meet the demands neoliberal markets and politics that intersect to form the Bioeconomy.

Retinal Organoid, 2018, Lyndsey Walsh

"Aaahh! Real Monsters"

The origin story of the stem cells we have come to know today has risen out of the disfigured corpse of the monstrous teratoma. A few years before James Till and Ernest McCulloch demonstrated the existence of multipotent stem cells in their experiments on bone marrow with mice, Leroy Stephens had published his own research findings in 1958 that cells from his transplanted teratomas could exhibit a number of interesting cellular behaviors such as differentiating into normal adult tissues, new teratomas, and continuous cell lines of undifferentiated cells. Stephen’s research builds on a long history of the role of teratology, or the study of monsters and monstrosities, that has come to shape major facets of modern scientific research.

Melinda Cooper credits Stephens with providing experimental verification of the work of French naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire who fixated his interests in embryology on the pursuit of looking for biological monstrosity in the process of “abnormal” and “normal” development, as described by both French Zoologist Edmund Perrier and French Philosopher and Physician Georges Canguilhem. Saint-Hilaire asserted that monsters themselves were governed by the laws of nature, which Perrier summarized and expanded upon in his text "The philosophy of zoology before Darwin" these monsters could therefore be experimentally produced to further scientific discourse and understanding of morphology, the study of biological forms.

The differential potential of teratomas witnessed by Stephens has been further investigated and discussed in the research of scientific researchers (Andrews et al., 2005) who have found that Embryonal Carcinomas and Ebryonal Stem Cells represent “two sides of the same coin”, with stem cells representing undifferentiated cells with desirable and normalized cell behaviors and teratomas are chaotic, unruly, and pathological deviant cells (1). Melinda Cooper has further assessed that the modern-day and laboratory definition of a stem cell is a cell with “a capacity for indefinite self-division (potential immortalization) which they retain even when they can be provoked into generating differentiated cells”, which Cooper is cautious to remind us that this definition is ambiguous as it could be subject to either pathological or “normal” process of behaviors.

Fuelling the flames of the relationship between cancer and stem cell material potential, philosopher of science Melinda Fagan characterizes a fundamental epistemological issue that is inescapable when studying stem cells. Fagan calls this “The Stem Cell Uncertainty Principle”, using the analogy of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In my 2018 dissertation, I wrote “Fagan concludes researchers cannot ‘know’ the potential for the two inherent characteristics of stem cells (self-renewal and ability to differentiate) due to the determination of one directly impacting their ability to determine the other when dealing with a single cell (Fagan 2013)… Thus, the cycling between ideas about the pathological and the ‘normal’ in the experimental is a by-product of this inherent uncertainty in the material potential of these cells” (Walsh 2018).

This messy entanglement is where Cooper's critical analysis asserts an important and distinct argument about how these issues trickle down into the social, cultural, and economic influences in scientific research, as she states in her 2004 publication entitled “Regenerative Medicine: Stem cells and the science of monstrosity”:

“The very traits that define teratogenesis as pathological—disorganized growth and differentiation in the case of the teratoma, the unlimited proliferation of the teratocarcinoma—are here rediscovered as benign, even regenerative, possibilities. For the science of regenerative medicine, health can no longer be identified with the equilibrium of the self regulating organism, but comes to be associated with the body’s capacity for cumulative proliferative growth in far from equilibrium conditions. Health has become excessive rather than homeostatic… In the process, the deregulated growth of the monstrosity, that ultimate countervalue to normative theories of organic life, comes to represent the most extreme potentiality of life itself.” (Cooper 2004, p. 21)

These value systems in regenerative medicine that are being projected onto the unruly and monstrous body of the teratoma create a bizarre framework where the monster is accepted into mainstream science as long as its monstrous potential can be harnessed for a culturally decided "greater purpose". Later on, she identifies in "Life as Surplus" that this greater purpose is to maintain the idea that stem cells can be a profitable material potential, offering up all the promises of an unlimited supply of biological capital readily available to be manipulated to suit whatever ends or means is deemed necessary. The promises of a surplus of living material feed the dreams and desires of what Melinda Fagan calls "clinical aspirations", which promote the idea that the study of stem cells should result in clinical outcomes that can be applied to advancements in biomedicine.

Return of the Teratoma, 2018-2021, Lyndsey Walsh

The Horrifying Power of the “Feminine” Imagination

In addition to their embedment in the history of stem cells, teratomas also are encoded in issues concerning gender and gendered viewings of material potential. Teratomas themselves emerge in their most monstrous and horrific forms with teeth and hair when originating from biological processes associated with the so-called female reproductive system, as testicular teratomas typically result in malignant testicular cancer while ovarian teratomas are cataloged extensively in publications describing monstrous births and have a history of associations about being caused by witchcraft, adultery with the devil, and the nightmares of women (2).

These fears concerning the intersections of reproductive potential and monstrosity that have resulted in a vast cultural landscape for teratomas to inhabit follows what contemporary philosopher and feminist theoretician Rosi Braidotti has elaborated on concerning the “imagination hypothesis” and maternal creative potential. Braidotti explains:

“It attributes to the mother the capacity to undo the living capital she is carrying in her womb; the power of her imagination is such that she can actually kill or deform her creation. It must be borne in mind here that the power of the imagination has been a major issue since the seventeenth century. At that time, it had a double function: to create order through the principle of making connections or spotting resemblances, and yet also to upset that order.” (Braidotti 1999, p. 296)

A monstrous offspring such as the teratoma is a birth of what I have attributed in my 2018 dissertation to be Braidotti’s “embodiment of difference”, which frames a posthumanist critique on materiality, where the teratoma represents a biological other and processes to embrace, reject, or make amends with its embodied difference give rise to narratives about forging relations with biological otherness.

Return of the Teratoma, 2018-2021, Lyndsey Walsh

The Teratoma’s Comeback… another shitty sequel.

As interests and investments continue to be directed at laboratory-grown cellular entities and organs, the teratoma is a figure that is destined to continually return. With each comeback, its presence directs our attention to shifting cultural concerns and technoscientific desires. It is both a product of biological potential that actively evades the promises of the Bioeconomy and a creature born from the ruptures in the corporeality of culture.

Return of the Teratoma is simply one of these comebacks, or a critically un-acclaimed sequel, featuring a truly coveted or beloved monster. The work builds off the legacy of historical narratives, philosophical insights, cultural studies, and the works of artists and creators who have summoned the monstrous power of the unruly cellular potential to unveil profound cultural insights about bodies and bodily potentials, such as Lu Yang’s “Kimo Kawa Cancer Babies”, Patricia Piccinini’s “Still Life with Stem Cells”, and “Teratological Prototypes” created by Jennifer Willet, Jason Knight and The Tissue Culture & Art Project's Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr.

Return of the Teratoma is my take on a dramatization of this never-ending haunting. The work explores the horror and material legacy of amorphous forms that refuse to behave, reject measures of whatever can be called “ made in good taste”, and erode our sense of security that a promising potential is always hopeful, always better. The work asserts that the monster makes no other promises than to always return— and maybe this time it will be back with vengeance.


1. Andrews, P.W., Matin, M.M., Bahrami, A.R., Damjanov, I., Gokhale, P., Draper, J.S., 2005. Embryonic stem (ES) cells and embryonal carcinoma (EC) cells: opposite sides of the same coin. Biochemical Society Transactions 33, 1526. doi:10.1042/BST20051526.

2. Ingale, Y., Shankar, A.A., Routray, S., Agrawal, M., Kadam, A. and Patil, T., 2013. Ectopic teeth in ovarian teratoma: a rare appearance. Case reports in dentistry, 2013.

Additional References

Braidotti, R., 1999. Signs of Wonder and Traces of Doubt: On Teratology and Embodied Difference. In: J. Price and M. Shildrick, ed., Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. New York: Routledge, pp.290-301.

Canguilhem, G., 1962. Monstrosity and the Monstrous. Translated by Therese Jaeger. Diogenes, 10(40), pp.27-42.

Cooper, M., 2004. Regenerative medicine: Stem cells and the science of monstrosity. Medical Humanities 30, 12–22. doi:10.1136/jmh.2003.000137.

Cooper, M., 2015. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Fagan, M.B., 2013. The Stem Cell Uncertainty Principle. Philosophy of Science 80, 945–957. doi:10.1086/674014.

Perrier, E., 2009. The philosophy of zoology before Darwin. Dordrecht: Springer, pp.73-98.

Stevens, L., 1958. Studies on Transplantable Testicular Teratomas of Strain 129 Mice. JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 20(6), pp.1257-1275.

Walsh, L., 2018. "Generating Monsters: The Materiality and Aesthetics of Stem Cell Potential", Masters Thesis, University of Western Australia, Perth.


1 commentaire

03 sept. 2023

interesting read on the Teratoma. I am wondering, to what extent does this imagined space see Teratoma returning. And how and why we use the term Monster. A cute monster i would say!

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