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Rice, Baylor to Study Hydrogel, Stem Cell Scaffolding

L-R: Vivek Kumar, Rena D’Souza, Jeffrey Hartgerink, and Marci Kang. (Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Rice University/Baylor University research team. L-R: Vivek Kumar, Rena D’Souza, Jeffrey Hartgerink, and Marci Kang. (Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Researchers at Rice University in Houston and Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas received a National Institutes of Health grant to develop an injectable hydrogel that forms an active biological scaffold for tissue repair in a patient. The $1.7 million, five-year project will focus on the regeneration of the dentin-pulp complex found inside human teeth.

The funding for Rice bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink and co-investigator Rena D’Souza of Baylor continues their current research on self-assembling peptide hydrogels that physically support and encourage the growth of specific kinds of tissues. The hydrogels will form into synthetic scaffolds or frameworks to form replacement tissues from a patient’s own cells. The scaffolds are designed to then degrade and leave only natural, healthy tissue behind.

This project aims to inject scaffolds infused with living cells that will allow the repairs to occur inside the tooth’s natural environment. The peptides designed and prepared at Rice self-assemble into nanofibers that can be triggered to form a hydrogel. “We can then deliver cells, small-molecule drugs, and proteins to bring everything together properly in one place,” says Hartgerink.

The particular place for this project is the dentin-pulp complex in the tooth that D’Souza says is the soft tissue in the roots and crown that keeps the tooth vital and responsive to injury. “If you have a toothache, it’s the tissue that’s inflamed and has no place to expand. That’s why it hurts so much,” D’Souza notes.

Dentists now remove inflamed pulp and replace it with an inert rubber-based filler. Hartgerink and D’Souza aim to inject stem cell-seeded hydrogels to allow natural pulp to regenerate into the chamber while stimulating new dentin formation.

D’Souza adds that hydrogels have important advantages for these kinds of treatments. “We can deliver them in a syringe to small spaces that are difficult to access, and the material does not get damaged,” she says. “Developing this material as a restorative therapy is advantageous to patients as, unlike all other dental materials, this one is biologically active.”

The researchers note the new grant from NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research will continue work started with support from the Welch Foundation, and seed money from  GlaxoSmithKline and International Association for Dental Research.

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