Xinqiao Jia is part of a research team attempting to create artificial salivary glands. The team includes researchers from University of Delaware, Rice University and Christiana Care Health System.

Help for cancer patients

UD partner in $2.5 million NIH grant to produce artificial salivary glands

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10:57 a.m., Aug. 13, 2012--University of Delaware professor Xinqiao Jia is part of a research team breaking new ground in the creation of artificial salivary glands.

Funded through a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the research team hopes the work will lead to new solutions for Xerostomia, or dry mouth, an inevitable consequence of radiation treatment for head and neck cancers. 

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The four-year project is a collaborative effort between researchers at Rice University, the University of Delaware and Christiana Care Health System. Principal investigators named to the project include:

  • Cindy Farach-Carson, vice provost for translational bioscience and professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University;
  • Xinqiao Jia, associate professor of materials science and engineering and biomedical engineering at UD; and
  • Robert Witt, M.D., chief of the multidisciplinary head and neck oncology clinic at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center.

Head and neck cancer patients often undergo radiation as an early course of treatment. Such treatment often destroys the saliva-producing cells in the mouth. This side effect causes dry mouth which can lead to severe dental issues, as well as difficulty swallowing, speaking and eating, and overall discomfort.

To date, current therapies in this area have proven ineffective over the long term. 

“Few in the research community have applied tissue engineering strategies to the problem. Our hope is that by assembling a strategic team with engineering, biological and clinical expertise, we can make headway and offer new hope to patients suffering from this condition,” said Jia, a tissue engineering expert.

In previous work the research team developed methods for isolating and growing salivary cells, which are responsible for water and enzyme production, in the lab prior to radiation. These cells form 3D secretory structures when cultured in biologically relevant hydrogels. 

At UD, the Jia Group will develop hydrogels that will be used as instructive matrices to guide the salivary cells through morphogenesis processes and potentially organize them into functional salivary glands. Jia explained that the hydrogels can be “tuned” to match the structure and properties of the native tissues in salivary glands, increasing the potential for success.

Working with collaborators at the Helen F. Graham Center’s Center for Translational Cancer Research, the team hopes the work will translate into reliable methods to produce artificial salivary glands. 

Doctors will culture a patient’s cells prior to radiation treatment and then re-implant the salivary glands grown from the patients’ own cells back into the mouth following treatment. 

“The goal is to help cancer survivors overcome dry mouth problems and improve their quality of life,” Jia added.

“Interdisciplinary teams permit research groups to more effectively solve complex problems and this project highlights the synergy between the basic, applied and clinical aspects of bioengineering research,” added Kristi Kiick, deputy dean of UD’s College of Engineering. “As more faculty engage in these types of interdisciplinary programs and partnerships, the impact and visibility of the University’s research will continue to grow.” 

About the researchers

Xinqiao Jia, UD associate professor of materials science and engineering and biomedical engineering, is an expert in biomaterials and tissue engineering. Her research focuses on developing intelligent biomaterials that closely mimic the molecular composition, biological function, mechanical responsiveness and nanoscale organization of the natural matrices surrounding cells. Her research group is actively developing methodologies to engineer functional vocal folds, salivary glands and cartilage.

Cindy Farach-Carson, professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University, has extensive expertise in matrix biology and cell-matrix interactions.  She will direct the Rice effort in culturing the salivary gland cells in synthetic matrices and will analyze their responses to directed growth factor cues. The goal is to establish the in vitro conditions for the formation of functional and implantable glands. Farach-Carson previously served as a professor of biological sciences and materials science and engineering at UD, where she was also the founding director of the Center for Translational Cancer Research, from 1998-2009.

Robert Witt, M.D., chief of the multidisciplinary head and neck oncology clinic at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and adjunct associate professor of biological sciences at UD, is a national leader working toward the development of artificial salivary glands. He will provide in vivo assessment of the engineered glands, as well as expertise on tissue function and physiology and disease progression.

Other members of the research team include:

  • Swati Pradhan Bhatt, a UD post-doctoral fellow; and
  • Daniel Harrington, faculty fellow in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Rice University.

About the grant

Research reported in this article was supported by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research of the National Institutes of Health under award number RO1DE022969.

Article by Karen B. Roberts

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Christiana Care Health System

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