Doug Melton

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Research News Flash: Scientists Grow Cells For Possible Diabetes Cure

Human Stem Cell Beta Cells/Photo Courtesy Doug Melton, Harvard University

Human Stem Cell Beta Cells/Photo Courtesy Doug Melton, Harvard University

In what is being called a major advance on the road toward more effective diabetes treatment, Harvard researchers report that they’ve been able to grow large quantities of human, insulin-producing pancreatic “beta cells” from human embryonic stem cells. Why is this important?

As the leader of this massive, years-long effort, Doug Melton, the superstar Harvard stem cell researcher said in a news conference Tuesday: “This finding provides a kind of unprecedented cell source that could be used both for drug discovery and cell transplantation therapy in diabetes.” And as NPR’s Rob Stein put it: “The long-sought advance could eventually lead to new ways to help millions of people with diabetes.”

Reporter Karen Weintraub, writing for National Geographic, describes why the research, conducted in diabetic mice, has taken so long, with so many twists and turns:

The researchers started with cells taken from a days-old human embryo. At that point, the cells are capable of turning into any cell in the body. Others have tried to make beta cells from these human embryonic stem cells, but never fully succeeded. Melton’s team spent a decade testing hundreds of combinations before finally coaxing the stem cells into becoming beta cells.

“If you were going to make a fancy kind of raspberry chocolate cake with vanilla frosting, you’d pretty much know all the components you have to add, but it’s the way you add them and the order and the timing, how long you cook it” that makes the difference, Melton, also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, said at [the] news conference. “The solution took a long time.”

Here’s (a lot) more detail from the Harvard news release, written by B.D. Colen:

Harvard stem cell researchers today announced that they have made a giant leap forward in the quest to find a truly effective treatment for type 1 diabetes, a condition that affects an estimated three million Americans at a cost of about $15 billion annually.

With human embryonic stem cells as a starting point, the scientists are for the first time able to produce, in the kind of massive quantities needed for cell transplantation and pharmaceutical purposes, human insulin-producing beta cells equivalent in most every way to normally functioning beta cells.

Doug Melton, who led the work and who twenty-three years ago, when his then infant son Sam was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, dedicated his career to finding a cure for the disease, said he hopes to have human transplantation trials using the cells to be underway within a few years.

“We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line,” said Melton, whose daughter Emma also has type 1 diabetes.

A report on the new work has today been published by the journal Cell. Continue reading

Harvard Biologist: When The Search For A Cure Gets Personal

Check out Rachel Gotbaum’s very nice profile of Doug Melton, Harvard’s influential stem cell scientist, on WBUR today.

Melton’s certainly had his share of media attention — he was at the center of the controversy over embryonic stem cell research, which anti-abortion activists tried to stop during the Bush administration. But Gotbaum’s story focuses on a more personal aspect of the biologist’s work: trying to find a cure for diseases like diabetes, which afflicts both of his children. Melton’s career trajectory underwent a radical shift shortly after he and his wife learned their infant son was sick:

Stem cell scientist Doug Melton began searching for a cure for diabetes  after his infant son was diagnosed with the disease. (Photo: Jesse Costa, WBUR)

Stem cell scientist Doug Melton began searching for a cure for diabetes after his infant son was diagnosed with the disease. (Photo: Jesse Costa, WBUR)

In 1981, Melton was recruited by Harvard, where he focused on molecular biology and embryology. But all that changed 10 years later when Melton’s infant son, Sam, became ill. His wife, Gail O’Keefe, says their son, who was 6 months old at the time, was not thriving.

“I started noticing that he wasn’t making any eye contact; something was clearly amiss but I couldn’t really put my finger on it,” O’Keefe said. “And then one morning he woke up and he was projectile vomiting.”

“We took him to the hospital and for a while no one could figure out what was wrong with him and it looked quite dire,” Melton recalled. “We now know that he was in extreme ketoacidosis, which is the stage before a person goes into a coma.”

The couple watched for hours as doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital tried to figure out what was wrong with Sam. Continue reading