Campus & Community

Driven to succeed

3 min read

Fatherhood focuses Melton’s powerful intellect on cure for diabetes

When the baby vomited again, Gail Melton knew something was seriously wrong with her second child, a son she and her husband, Doug Melton, had named Sam.

She phoned Doug and took Sam to Harvard Health Services in Holyoke Center. Doug hurried to the clinic from his Fairchild Biochemistry Building lab on Divinity Avenue. Together Gail and Doug rushed their infant son to Children’s Hospital Boston.

The specialists at Children’s at first were puzzled by Sam’s condition and hovered around the bed where he lay semiconscious. For Doug and Gail, the waiting was torturous. Their anxiety only increased when the doctors asked them to leave the room. Then a simple urine analysis showed that Sam’s urine contained high levels of sugar. Though the condition is rare in 6-month-olds, Sam Melton had diabetes.

That night was one of the worst of Doug Melton’s life, but it may ultimately prove to have been a turning point for diabetics around the world. Sam’s illness brought a powerful new player into the decades-long fight against the disease, one who has already made important discoveries on the development of beta cells, the cellular insulin factories in the pancreas.

Since his now-16-year-old son’s diagnosis, Melton has become one of the top scientists in the field of stem cell and regenerative biology. Together with David Scadden, who heads the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Melton leads one of the world’s premier centers for stem cell science, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

But at the time of Sam’s illness, nobody knew what the future held. Melton was not an expert in diabetes. He had come to Harvard as an assistant professor in 1981, was named a full professor in 1988, and was in the midst of a promising career: His research through the 1980s had transformed the field of developmental biology by bringing the powerful tools of molecular biology to bear. But a personal storm raged in him after Sam’s diagnosis, sparked by his child’s suffering and fed by a father’s feeling of helplessness.

“I did what any parent does,” Melton said of those days. “I asked, ‘What am I going to do about this?’”

When the storm cleared, Melton saw a new way ahead. He could not help Sam the night his bed was surrounded by doctors. But he was determined to help him in the future: He would find a cure for diabetes.