U-M Health Science Resource Center Gets $11.7 Million NIH Award

ANN ARBOR – A new interdisciplinary health sciences resource center at the University of Michigan has received an $11.7 million award from the National Institutes of Health to advance regenerative medicine.

The center, led by the School of Dentistry, brings together scientists, engineers and clinicians from several U-M departments in collaboration with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, Harvard University and private companies.

They will investigate new ways to restore dental, oral and craniofacial tissues lost to disease, injury or congenital disorders. Technologies advanced in these areas could lead to tissue engineering applications for other parts of the body as well.

The research, funded by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, involves U-M collaborators from the Medical School, School of Public Health, College of Pharmacy, College of Engineering, Office of Technology Transfer and Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research. Other co-investigators are from the McGowan Institute at Pittsburgh and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

The center is named the Michigan-Pittsburgh-Wyss Resource Center: Supporting Regenerative Medicine in Dental, Oral and Craniofacial Technologies. The three universities have committed financial support in addition to the $11.7 million NIH award to create a project total of about $14 million.

The U-M-based resource center is one of two announced today by the NIDCR. The other is based at the University of California, San Francisco. The combined NIH awards total $24 million over three years.

The collaboration of the Michigan, Pittsburgh and Harvard researchers came out of an initial one-year organizational phase funded with a previous NIDCR planning grant. The new funding supports a second, three-year phase during which investigators will evaluate and select research projects that have the most scientifically sound, clinically applicable and commercially viable strategies for the regeneration of dental, oral and craniofacial tissues.

The resource center will match the projects with engineering, biological, manufacturing, commercial and regulatory expertise from the clinical, academic and private sectors in order to more efficiently translate discoveries into clinical practice.

Regenerative medicine refers to research that integrates engineering and biology, seeking to regenerate damaged cells, tissues or organs to their full function, such as finding ways for the body to heal wounds faster or to repair bone that has been damaged.

Research strategies can be material-based, cell-based and drug delivery, or combinations of those. Some of the current material-based research in the craniofacial area, for example, uses tiny polymer-based scaffolds that are implanted to promote the growth of damaged bone or periodontal tissue that supports teeth or tooth replacement dental implants.

Project directors and principal investigators at the School of Dentistry are David Kohn, professor in the school’s Department of Biologic and Materials Sciences and also professor of biomedical engineering at the College of Engineering, and William Giannobile, the William K. and Mary Anne Najjar Professor of Dentistry and chair of the Department of Periodontics and Oral Medicine, and professor of biomedical engineering at the College of Engineering.

Laurie McCauley, dean of the School of Dentistry, said the resource center has assembled a strong team poised for important breakthroughs in this quickly evolving field.  

“Drs. Kohn and Giannobile have established a multidisciplinary group with a robust plan that will build on Michigan’s success in basic tissue engineering and training to achieve transformative approaches in regenerative medicine,” she said.

Kohn said this three-year phase will be a period of investigating many aspects of each project.

“The purpose of the center is to vet technologies,” he said. “And not only vet them scientifically but vet them clinically: Is this scaffold going to solve a compelling clinical problem? Vet them in terms of manufacturing: Can this be manufactured? Can it be manufactured to FDA standards? Vet them in terms of commercialization: Is anyone going to invest and buy this?

“We might prove in a small clinical study that something is effective, but it’s not going to get out to the masses unless a company or investors decide to pursue the technology. So we’re talking about vetting in all those different sectors.”

Giannobile said U-M is uniquely positioned to lead the center. The funding application notes that U-M is the only university in the country with Top 10-ranked dental, medical and engineering schools on the same contiguous campus, which makes it easier for interdisciplinary collaboration in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

“There are so many excellent independent investigators here at U-M with individual grants and patents in regenerative medicine,” Giannobile said. “We feel fortunate that we were able to coalesce many different groups from around the university that could really help spearhead regenerative medicine at Michigan with this type of larger, programmatic grant.

“It’s oral, dental and craniofacial research, but certainly this will serve as a bridge to other parts of the body—the musculoskeletal system, bone regeneration, soft tissue, nerve, other structures—because what we learn in the all-important head and neck area will apply to other areas as well.”

Joining Kohn and Giannobile as project directors and principal investigators are Charles Sfeir and William Wagner of the University of Pittsburgh and David Mooney of Harvard.

The project includes two key private-sector contributors—the McGuire Institute of Houston, with extensive experience in practice-based clinical research in regenerative oral and periodontal medicine, and the Avenues Company of Flagstaff, Ariz., a marketing consulting firm focusing on clinical and business development strategies in regenerative dentistry.

NIDCR is one of 27 institutes and centers under the umbrella of the National Institutes of Health. NIH is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The new Michigan and California centers are part of the NIDCR’s Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Tissue Regeneration Consortium, an initiative designed to shepherd new therapies through preclinical studies and into human clinical trials. The ultimate goal is to develop strategies and devices that could help repair or regenerate damaged tissues such as craniofacial bone, muscle and blood vessels, nerves, teeth and salivary glands.

“By establishing this research consortium, NIDCR seeks to lead national efforts to accelerate the translation of promising dental, oral and craniofacial regenerative medicine therapies into the clinic,” said NIDCR Director Martha Somerman. “The consortium is designed as a model for optimizing translation of scientific advances in this field.”