Melton, Doug (Stem Cell)

Douglas Melton is currently a leading embryonic stem cell researcher and the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor in the Natural Sciences at Harvard University. In addition, Doug Melton is the codirec-tor of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, chair of the Life Sciences Council at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and since 1994, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. He received his bachelor’s of science degree in biology, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Illinois, Urbana, in 1975 and a bachelor’s of arts from Cambridge University in history and the philosophy of science as a Marshall Scholar. He also received his doctoral degree from Cambridge University, at Trinity College, under the supervision of J. B. Gurdon and while working in the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences (since 1995), the Institute of Medicine (2001), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1995).

Melton’s research aims to understand how human stem cells become different types of tissues, particularly the pancreas and its insulin-producing beta cells. Melton began as a scientific researcher studying development, RNA processing, and translation in frog (Xenopus laevis) oocytes. However, in 1993, when his infant son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes mellitus, a disease in which the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are destroyed, Melton changed his research’s direction to address the development of vertebrate organs from stem cells. His son and daughter are now in their teens, and both are affected by this disease; as diabetics, they are at risk of future blindness, organ failure, and heart disease. Melton has been quoted in an interview in the New York Times saying, “Like any parent, I asked myself, ‘What can I do?’ . . . I wanted my children to know I was doing everything I could for them.” An ultimate goal of his work is to make transplantable pancreatic tissue for diabetic patients by understanding how the pancreas develops and how to instruct embryonic stem cells to make pancreatic tissue.


Melton’s laboratory’s recent work has had a variety of major breakthroughs. In 2004 an article from his laboratory in Nature reported that preexisting beta cells of the pancreas primarily duplicate to replenish their numbers, rather than resulting from plu-ripotent stem cells differentiating. One year later, Melton’s group showed that embryonic stem cells could fuse with and reprogram the transcriptional state of a somatic cell. In early 2007 another article in Nature from Melton’s laboratory demonstrated that the number of cells in the pancreas progenitor cell pool limits mice pancreas size.

Using funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Juvenile Diabetes Association, and alumni of Harvard University, Melton helped continue his stem cell research independent of federal funding after August 9, 2001, and provided a number of human embryonic stem cell lines for free to other researchers.


Melton has received many awards and honors. As a undergraduate, he was an Edmund J. James Scholar from 1975 to 1978. In 1981 he won the Max Perutz Prize and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Award. Between 1983 and 1986, Melton was a Searle Scholar. In 1991 Melton received the George Ledlie Prize, a Harvard award given in recognition of the individual who “since the last awarding of said prize has by research, discovery or otherwise made the most valuable contribution to science, or in any way for the benefit of mankind.” That same year, he was received an American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Young Investigator Award. In 1995 he received the Richard Lounsbery Award from the National Academy of Sciences and became an honorary member of the Japanese Biochemical Society in 1996. In 2002 Melton was awarded the Eliot P. Joslin Medal.

Melton rose quickly through the ranks of academia. From 1981 to 1984, he was assistant professor, and from 1984 to 1987, he was associate professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Harvard University. From 1987 to 1988, Melton was named the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard, and since 1988, he has been a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard. He concurrently holds additional positions as a biologist (medicine) at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston (since 1993), an associate member of Children’s Hospital Boston (1994), a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator (1994), and the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor in the Natural Sciences (1999).

Melton has also had editorial positions with a variety of publications. In addition, he is a member of the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Ad Hoc Strategy Planning Group (2000) and is the treasurer of the International Society on Stem Cell Research (2002). He is also a member of the Beta Cell Biology Consortium, along with Joshua LaBaer and Lori Sussel. His most well-known editorial positions include being the review board editor of Science, from 1997 to 2001; being U.S. editor of Development, 2003; and being on the editorial board of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from 2003 to 2004. In 2003, he was also an editor of Neurobiology and Cytokine & Growth Factor Reviews. From 2003 to 2004, he was both on the advisory board for Genome Biology and an editor of the e-journal Regenerative Medicine.

Although information regarding his nonacademic work has not been updated recently, Melton serves on the boards of at least two scientific companies. Melton was a director and the scientific founder of Ontogeny Inc., which later merged with other biotechnology companies to form Curis, a drug development company hoping to use cell-signaling pathway technology and functional genom-ics to transform medicine in cancer and neurological and cardiovascular diseases. Melton is also on the scientific board of Scatterbrain, a scientific consultancy firm that seeks to provide appraisals of the originality, quality, and feasibility of experimental approaches.

Next post:

Previous post: