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.

“And by the quick and clever action of a nurse who checked his urine and recognized that he was diabetic, which was a surprise to the attending physicians and certainly to us,” Melton said.

The diagnosis would change the couple’s lives forever. O’Keefe dropped out of graduate school to care for their diabetic baby.

“Everything had to stop because, I mean, taking care of this infant was 24/7,” O’Keefe said. “We had to give three injections a day, every thing had to be highly timed and up to 10 blood checks a day. It was just, it was really, really hard.”

O’Keefe felt overwhelmed and asked her husband to share more of the burden.

“At some point I said, ‘This isn’t fair, my entire life has changed and you just keep going to work,’ ” she recalled. “And he said, ‘What can I do?’ and I said, ‘You are a scientist. We need to find a cure here.’ ”

Over the next year, Melton transitioned his work from basic biological research to searching for a cure for diabetes.

“Sam getting the disease made me rethink my priorities in life,” Melton said. “I had never really thought a lot about disease; my work didn’t focus on it. It gave me a different sort of appreciation for the things we have in life and the things we can so easily lose.”

This story made me realize, once again, how so much of what drives us professionally — in medicine, in art, in journalism — comes from a deeply personal place; and how so many committed professionals do what they do because of a child, struggling, and often out of sight, back home.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.