Sharing and enabling a vision
It is often said that every journey begins with a single step. For Stella and Howard Heffron, the journey began with the wrenching news that their daughter Nancy, then 12-years-old, was suffering from type 1 diabetes. “We had no family history of it; we didn’t know where it came from, and,” Stella Heffron pauses to rein in her emotions, “to see this little kid having to stick herself with all these needles, and administer insulin ...We decided that the only way this was ever going to stop was if we helped fund research, and I became involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation [JDRF].”
Doug Melton’s journey began similarly. The developmental biologist and his wife, Gail O’Keefe, had no family history of diabetes, and so it came as a complete shock when their then-six-month-old son, Sam, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Like the Heffrons, Melton felt compelled to find some way to help his child, and he changed the focus of his research, his life’s work, to developing a cure for the disease that afflicts some three million Americans.
Melton and the Heffrons each moved down separate paths: Melton searching in his laboratory for a way to combat the autoimmune disease that attacks the body’s insulin-producing beta cells; and the Heffrons first holding fundraising garage sales, then becomng involved on a local and later national level with the JDRF. Until one day, when Melton the scientist, and Howard Heffron the parent, met while testifying before a congressional committee about the need to better fund diabetes research.
“I had been looking for some vehicle to fund research,” recalls Howard Heffron, a Harvard Law School graduate who served in various legal positions in the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Carter administrations, “and Doug came along. I didn’t know he existed at that point. But we
met at the hearing, had a brief brown-bag lunch together, and started chatting, and the more I heard from him about his background, and why he was there, the more I thought to myself, ‘This is the guy.’”
“We talked about what to do about galvanizing Harvard University to get into stem cell research,” Heffron says, “and we talked about all the different places in the University where that could happen, and we decided we needed some special way for the University to support stem cell research — to gather the resources of the University and focus them on stem cells. That discussion eventually led to the founding of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.”
And when HSCI was founded in 2004, Howard and Stella Heffron were among its earliest and most generous benefactors, supporting the Institute’s diabetes research, and making possible the purchase and development of resources that have proved invaluable to all the Institute’s disease programs.
“For me, supporting HSCI hasn’t only been about diabetes, it’s about supporting basic research,” says Stella Heffron. “We have a son who’s a doctor, and he always says everything goes back to basic research – I was influenced by that. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute is doing so many things in so many fields; that’s very compelling.”
“What makes supporting the Stem Cell Institute so compelling is the depth and breadth of science at Harvard; there are experts in so many areas that if one person doesn’t have the answer to a problem, some one else will,” explains Howard Heffron.
“As I look back on my career,” he says, “I feel that supporting HSCI and Doug Melton is the most important thing I’ve ever done. When Doug takes me on a tour of the labs, I am just overawed by the enthusiasm of the young people working there; they are absolutely terrific. They will solve the problems we face.”