A research team initiated by faculty in the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, called C-DOCTOR (Center for Dental, Oral and Craniofacial Tissue and Organ Regeneration), is one step closer to developing products that facilitate tissue regeneration, thanks to a $12 million award from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).

The award stems from a challenge issued by NIDCR two years ago for researchers to develop safe and effective clinical strategies for dental, oral and craniofacial tissue regeneration.

“This is really about engineering products,” explained Ostrow’s Associate Dean of Research Yang Chai, DDS, PhD, one of the study’s principal investigators. “It’s not only about being able to understand what stem cells can do, but also how you deliver the stem cells for patient care.”

An example of the projects that the Ostrow-initiated research team, which includes seven other California-based universities and organizations, hopes to develop is an effective way to use a 3-D printed, dissolvable scaffold to help organize stem cells for focused repair and regrowth of bone tissue.

“Bone deficiency is a very common problem that patients face when they need an implant or when they have periodontal disease, traumatic injury or a birth defect,” Chai said. “Instead of stealing bone from other parts of the body, we’re going to be able to use stem cells to regenerate their own bone.”

From the NIDCR’s original request for applications, 10 groups were selected as Stage 1 awardees, allowing them to continue competing for Stage 2 funding.

During Stage 1, the groups — composed of dental clinicians, researchers, engineers, biomaterials experts and regulatory scientists — worked together to identify areas in which tissue regeneration could improve patient outcomes and make an immediate impact.

Ostrow researchers and DDS students also surveyed craniofacial surgeons, oral surgeons and dentists from all specialties to determine areas of clinical need. From the surveys, they determined that bone, soft tissues, tooth structure and periodontal tissues were areas that could be served best by the team’s expertise.

From the original 10 awardees, just two were selected, including C-DOCTOR, to continue their work into Stage 2. A University of Michigan-led group is the other awardee.

Chai explained that, during Stage 2, the research team will take their study from a small- to large-animal model to prepare it for a Phase I clinical trial.

“USC already had a strong history and reputation in developmental biology and stem cell tissue regeneration,” Chai said of C-DOCTOR’s success in the competition. “But in this case, it was our partnership with really strong academic institutions throughout California that really made this consortium stand out.”

The California-based C-DOCTOR consortium includes the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and the USC School of Pharmacy, as well as several other California-based institutions.

— John Hobbs