Melton, Douglas

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Melton, Douglas


Professor and research scientist

B orn Douglas A. Melton, September 26, 1953, in Chicago, IL; son of A. (a grocery store manager) and Betty (a court reporter) Melton; married Gail O’Keefe; children: Samuel, Emma. Education: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, B.S., 1975; Cambridge University, B.A., 1977; Trinity College and MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge University, Ph.D., 1980.

Addresses: Office—7 Divinity Ave., Rm. 465, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail—


A ssistant professor, Harvard University, 1981-84; associate professor, Harvard University, 1984-87; John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences, Harvard University, 1987-88; professor of molecular and cellular biology, Harvard University, 1988—; biologist, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, 1993—; investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 1994—; Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor in the Natural Sciences, Harvard University, 1999— co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Harvard University, 2004—. His scientific papers appear in such journals as Science, Development, and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Member: Associate member, Children’s Hospital, Boston, 1994—; National Academy of the Sciences, 1995—; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1995—; chairman of the scientific advisory board, Stowers Institute for Medical Research, 1999—; Institute of Medicine, 2001—.

Awards: Marshall scholar, Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission (U.K.) 1975-78; Searle scholar, Kinship Foundation, 1983-86; young investigator award, American Society of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, 1991; George Ledlie Prize, Harvard University, 1991; Richard Lounsberry Award, National Academy of Science, 1995; Eliot P. Joslin medal, Joslin Diabetes Center, 2002; named one of the 100 people who shape our world, Time magazine, 2007.


M any American researchers chafed at the restrictions by the federal government put on their efforts to develop new medical technology using embryonic stem cells in 2001. Douglas Melton, a biology professor at Harvard University, was one of them. He testified at hearings before Congress in 1999, discussing the good that could come out of the research. Despite his efforts, laws were enacted to limit the lines of cells that would be available for research in any scientific labs that received government funding. Melton did not give up, continuing his research in a privately funded environment.

Melton earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Illinois long before he became involved in researching stem cells. After finishing his undergraduate work, he traveled to England on a Marshall scholarship and studied the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University, receiving a second bachelor’s degree there. He stayed on for a Ph.D. in molecular biology at Trinity College and MRC Laboratory in Molecular Biology, part of Cambridge University. After graduating, he published several papers on frog development, becoming well known for his research in that area.

In 1993, everything changed. His son, Samuel, then six months old, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. (His teenage daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with the same disease in 2001.) The disease requires daily injections of insulin for the diabetic to survive. “Like any parent, I asked myself, What can I do?” Melton recalled to Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times. “The answer was to shift my research to an area that might help. I wanted my children to know I was doing everything I could for them.” Melton began studying the pancreatic development of frogs in order to focus on the organ that secretes insulin in healthy bodies. He was engaged in these studies when other scientists introduced the possibility of growing human embryonic stem cells in a laboratory environment. Melton began working with human cells, using his previous studies of the pan-creas to research how embryonic stem cells could be applied to grow the beta-cells that would create insulin. Unfortunately, stem cell research was still relatively new and there were very few stem cell lines available to work with.

Melton’s studies were controversial due to the ethical debate of using embryonic stem cells, harvested from fertilized eggs, in experiments. Many Americans believe that life begins at conception rather than at birth, so using embryonic stem cells, which could only be taken from embryos in “fatal” ways, created a great deal of ethical concern. The debate landed in the U.S. Congress, where hearings took place in order to determine what laws, if any, should govern the research. Melton testified about the hopes he had that he would be able to use the research to find a cure for the type 1 diabetes his son suffered from. Two years later, laws were passed keeping any federally funded labs from working with stem cells and limiting the number of available cell lines that researchers were allowed to work with. The shortage before had been problematic, but the laws made research even more difficult.

To begin with, Melton had a new layer of record-keeping to handle. In 1999, he was made the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Natural Science at Harvard University and, in 2004, he became co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute. In order to keep the Stem Cell Institute in compliance with the laws, new security measures had to be put into place. Graduate student researchers and postdoctoral workers on federal funding were no longer allowed to be on staff. All staff were required to have key cards. Money for mundane purchases, normally handled through the larger budget of Harvard University, had to be handled through the Stem Cell Institute exclusively. “We have an accountant who makes sure that not a penny of federal funds goes to embryonic stem cell research,” Mel-ton told Dreifus. “We have [to] separate everything—light bulbs, computers, centrifuges.”

Despite these difficulties and restrictions, Melton has persevered. In 2001, he led a team at Harvard researching the connection between blood vessels and the construction of the body: they showed that cells that would become the dorsal aorta—a major blood vessel—directly impacted the levels of insulin in the pancreas. In 2003, Melton’s team had developed 17 new lines of stem cells, which they pledged to make available to the scientific community. These lines were cultured from early embryos donated by patients at an infertility clinic in Boston; if they had not been used for research, the embryos would have been discarded. “We made them for our use and to share with the research community,” Melton said in Genomics & Genetics Weekly. Referring to the small number of lines available to American researchers, which come from ten labs, Melton said, “The ostensibly available lines are too few. And either they don’t live long enough to survive shipment or they are very expensive.” The New England Journal responded to the development by publishing an editorial requesting that the cell lines be added to the registry of lines allowed to be used in the United States. “There is too much suffering that may be re-mediable through the therapeutic application of this new approach to place stem cell lines off limits,” a USA Today article quoted the editors as having written.

Since those 17 lines were released in 2003, Melton has continued his work, bringing the number of lines created to more than 100. His team has also worked toward ways of creating embryonic stem cells without using human ova. One of these projects fuses adult skin cells with an already existing embryonic line. Not only does this help in avoiding controversy, there is a much greater chance that a body would accept transplants because the adult cells would match the DNA of the patient. The federal government applauded the steps, implying that the ban on using stem cells had pushed the scientists toward finding new ways to use the technology. Alan Leshner and James Thomson, in their commentary published by the Washington Post, wrote, “Far from vindicating the current U.S. policy of withholding federal funds from many of those working to develop potentially lifesaving embry-onic stem cells, recent papers in the journals Science and Cell described a breakthrough achieved despite political reasons.” On Melton’s profile on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Web site, the contributor expressed the hopes of the team that this approach would reduce controversy.

Melton himself, who was named one of the 100 people who shape our world by Time magazine in 2007, remains active about speaking out against the restrictions, which he feels limits the young minds that would otherwise be working in the field. He also feels that explaining scientific developments to the public would open up a conversation that might lessen controversy. As he said on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Web site, “Among the many lessons I’ve learned is that we, as scientists, should make greater efforts to explain what we are doing and why we are doing it. For better or worse, this needs to be done in newspapers and on TV, not just in scientific journals.”



Applied Genetics News, October, 2001.

BioWorld Week, March 8, 2004, p. 4.

Genomics & Genetics Weekly, November 28, 2003, p. 75.

M2 Presswire, May 2, 2005.

National Right to Life News, September 2005, p. 7.

New York Times, January 24, 2005, p. F2.

Roanoke Times, December 9, 2007, p. 2.

Science, September 28, 2001, p. 2365.

Time, May 2, 2007.

USA Today, March 4, 2004, p. 2D.

U.S. News & World Report, March 15, 2004, p. 70.

Washington Post, December 3, 2007, p. A17.


“Douglas A. Melton,” Harvard Stem Cell Institute, (February 18, 2008).

“Douglas A. Melton,” Harvard University Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, (February 18, 2008).

“Douglas A. Melton, Ph.D.,” Howard Hughes Medical Institute, (February 18, 2008).

“Douglas A. Melton, Ph.D.,” Stowers Institute for Medical Research, (February 18, 2008).

“Scholar Profile: Douglas A. Melton,” Searle Scholars Program, (February 18, 2008).

—Alana Joli Abbott