Human embryonic stem (ES) cells have the remarkable capacity to mature into all 200 kinds of cells that make up the human body: skin, bone, nerve, blood, heart, and so on. HHMI investigator Douglas A. Melton is searching for a cure for the millions of children with type I (juvenile) diabetes. The Harvard scientist believes that one answer to the problem may lie in basic research on stem cells.
Melton was a well-established scientist studying frog development in 1993 when his infant son was diagnosed with diabetes, a disease that attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Without insulin, the body can't convert glucose into energy, so people with type 1 diabetes must take daily insulin injections. Using information gained from studying the normal development of the pancreas, Melton has focused on identifying factors that could transform human ES cells in the laboratory into the pancreatic beta cells that secrete insulin.
Because ES cells reproduce themselves, they could become factories to replace specialized cells lost through disease or injury. Funds for this kind of research were not readily available in the public sector when Melton began stem cell research in the late 1990s. He realized that the number and quality of available human ES cell lines was limiting this promising new science. Melton made the case to HHMI that he had an opportunity to do some potentially exciting and important research, and HHMI provided the critical funding that ultimately enabled him to create new ES cell lines. Those cell lines have since been distributed to thousands of research labs throughout the world.
Melton continues to move stem cell science forward. His team recently identified a hormone that causes beta cells to replicate, raising hopes that the hormone might one day be used in the clinic to boost production of the critical insulin-producing cells.
Outside the lab, Melton continues to advance understanding of stem cell research through teaching undergraduates and catalyzing research collaborations. In 2004, Melton and his colleagues founded the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), a collaborative effort involving Harvard University and its affiliated hospitals. HSCI has had an active summer research program for undergraduate students, hosting a number of students from HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP).
Image: Rick Friedman
About the HHMI Investigator Program:
HHMI investigators, appointed through rigorous competitions, are among the most creative and promising biomedical researchers in the nation. Each scientist receives long-term, flexible support, enabling them to follow their own curiosity in the pursuit of significant biological questions. The Investigator Program is the Institute’s flagship program, with an annual commitment of over $600 million dollars to support the investigators and their host institutions across the country. The collaboration between HHMI and these institutions powerfully extends the nation’s research capacity. Read more >>