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Harvard Stem Cell Institute codirectors
Doug Melton
(left) and David Scadden (right).
(Photos by Stu Rosner
and Justin Ide/Harvard News Office, respectively)

A new center established to advance stem-cell research was announced by Harvard University. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute, as it is called, will draw some of its funding from the private sector and provide support for scientists investigating adult and embryonic stem cells.   The overarching goal of the Institute is to understand and harness the biology of stem cells in order to treat diseases in which specific kinds of cells are either defective or absent.   Some 25 to 30 Harvard-affiliated principal investigators will participate in the Institute, which aims to become the largest of its kind.   Doug Melton, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor in the Natural Sciences in MCB and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, will codirect the Institute with David Scadden, M.D., Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The Institute escalates Harvard’s commitment to stem cell research, which could provide novel treatments for illnesses afflicting hundreds of millions of people. “Harvard has clearly decided stem cell research is important for education and society,” says Professor Melton, “We are resolutely moving into this area and we are going to do it in a very open and public way.”

The Institute’s financial resources were seeded with a $5 million gift from Howard A. Heffron, LLB ’51 and his wife Stella Heffron. Overall funding goals, which have not been explicitly set, are being developed by the university and the Harvard teaching hospitals.

A Virtual Research Environment

Not housed in any one facility, the Institute is currently a “virtual center” without walls. It is described by faculty as a venture through which scientists who retain their department affiliations can share ideas and methods, perfect ways to isolate and grow stem cells, and nurture the promise of “cell therapy,” wherein actual cells, rather than drugs, are used to treat disease. Stem cells–particularly the embryonic variety–have the unique capacity to differentiate into any type of adult cell. Scientists hope to induce the cells to form specialized tissues. Thus, for example, they could be used to make insulin-producing islet cells to cure diabetes, or dopamine-producing cells which are absent in Parkinson’s disease. Ethical concerns surrounding embryonic stem cells caused the federal government to limit studies to a handful of cell lines derived prior to August 9, 2001.   “But we’re not going to do anything here behind closed doors,” Melton emphasizes. Indeed, the Institute will have a “strong ethical component,” he adds, that will be coordinated by Harvard Professor of Government Michael Sandel.

Human embryonic stem cells(immuno-stained for Oct-4, a molecular marker of pluripotent stem
cells at 60X)
A Clinical and Educational Focus

According to Melton, the Institute will focus its initial efforts on five disease categories: Diabetes, and disorders of the neurological, cardiovascular, blood, and musculoskeletal systems. Scientists will approach these diseases with clinical intent, addressing not only the means to create specialized cells, but also the challenge of cultivating them, administering them to patients, and evaluating progress with physiological and anatomical tests.

Along with the focus on applied research, the Institute will also have a strong educational component, Melton says. New courses will be offered to undergraduate, graduate, and medical students studying at Harvard and its affiliated hospitals. Moreover, a set of “discovery grants” will be offered to young investigators who identify promising pathways for research. “We’d like to allow people who work with this Institute to act on their ideas soon,” Melton says. “We thought it would be a good idea for students to be able to try something for a year or two without having to spend six months writing a grant.”

The Harvard Institute is likely to have a major impact on stem cell research – influencing the scope of scientific progress and also the terms of the public debate. As a privately-funded university with access to the nation’s top biomedical scientists, Harvard is in a unique position to advance stem cell research as no other organization can. Incremental progress at the Institute is likely to have far-reaching impacts.   “Let’s just imagine that we turn a human embryonic stem cell into a pancreatic beta cell,” Melton says. “If we do that, the hopes of millions of diabetics would be met. So what we need to do is the research – that’s our job and something that we can control.”

Further Reading:

View Doug Melton’s Faculty Profile