The Floating University

What's Up, Doc? 

Is Biomedical Research Really Close to Curing Anything?

DOUGLAS MELTON, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard University

Lesson Overview

A century ago, people would suffer and die from what we now consider routine bacterial infections. With the discovery of penicillin, a miracle occurred where it became possible to cure people who previously had been left for dead. We’re now at the edge of a similar revolution due to remarkable innovations in the field of regenerative biology. In What’s Up, Doc? Is Biomedical Research Really Close to Curing Anything?, Professor Douglas Melton introduces the astounding advances being made today to unlock the powerful potential hidden within our own cells. Cloning, regeneration, “man-made” stem cells, an end to aging as we know it; these may all sound like science fiction, but they're closer than you think!

Melton begins with a look at the basis for regenerative medicine, the human body’s ability to divide, grow, and specialize cells. With a solid foothold in developmental biology, we see how this knowledge led to the breakthrough cloning experiments we’re all familiar with: Hello, Dolly! Next, we’re introduced to the science of stem cells and their greatest hope: new “man-made” stem cells that could soon be used to reverse incurable degenerative diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Lastly, Professor Melton tells how these same stem cells may be the keys that unlock an end to aging as we know it. Science may not bring about everlasting life, but it’s clear by the end of this critically important lecture that regenerative medicine will inevitably bring about the ability to change our bodies in ways that were previously unimaginable.


Discussion Questions

(1.) It is now possible to clone (create genetically identical copies of) most animals, though humans have not been cloned. What reasons can you give for encouraging or preventing this advance? More concretely, scientists are now beginning to grow animal meat from stem cells via the same process used for cloning or regrowing organs. If any kind of animal meat could be grown in a lab, does that make it okay to eat? Taking it further, would it be permissible to eat human meat that was grown in an identical fashion to an artificial hamburger or pandaburger? How does this tie into the broader debate about using stem cells to grow organs for humans?

(2.) Transplanting stem cells, both of the embryonic or induced pluripotent variety, into the developing blastocyst of another species can produce a chimeric animal. The chimera, where one part develops from the transplanted stem cell and the rest of the animal comes from the host blastocyst, could be part human and part monkey. What can be learned from these types of experiments? What limits, if any, should be placed on chimera formation?

(3.) During the progression from a fertilized egg to a newborn baby is there any scientific information that could be provided to determine when a person comes into being? If you believe that stem cells are meaningfully "alive," how does that affect their moral use on adult humans with degenerative diseases? And if it's permissible to use stem cells to cure disease, is it permissible to use them to fuel "the fountain of youth" discussed in the lecture? 

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About Douglas Melton

Dr. Douglas Melton is a leading biologist in cellular research. His ground-breaking work, which focuses on the the developmental biology of the pancreas, aims to provide diabetics with insulin-producing beta-cells. Dr. Melton is a founding member of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. He has been spearheading a collaboration between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard University, and the Boston In Vitro Fertilization clinic to develop human embryonic stem lines for research purposes. In addition to serving as the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard University, Dr. Melton works as the co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute and as a lead investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.