Other ways to search: Events Calendar | UTHSC

Student-Postdoc Dream Team Makes Waves With Self-Directed Research Project

Dr. Rachel Perkins and Dr. Isaac de Souza Araújo were among the first recipients of grant funding through the College of Graduate Health Sciences’ Student Self-Directed Research Funding Initiative.

A project that began out of curiosity has become something much more significant and potentially successful than recent graduate Rachel Perkins, PhD, and postdoc Isaac de Souza Araújo, PhD, had imagined.

The two are making substantial strides in a collaborative independent research project funded by the College of Graduate Health Sciences’ Student Self-Directed Research Funding Initiative.

“We think that this is actually a potential product that could be used in the market in the future to help people with dental issues,” said Dr. Araújo, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Bioscience Research. The product would serve as a safe alternative to root canal treatment that essentially brings a decaying tooth back to life.

The project formed after conversations in a break room in the Cancer Research Building on the UT Health Science Center campus. On the building’s second floor, Dr. Araújo’s mentor studies dental materials and regeneration, and in the adjacent lab, Dr. Perkins’ mentor primarily researches bone cancer. While talking with each other about their work during lunch breaks, the two started to notice some overlap and wanted to investigate further.

“We didn’t really think about making a product; we were more interested in the molecular biology that was going on,” said Dr. Perkins, a Memphis-area native who graduated this month with a PhD from the integrated biomedical sciences program.

Dr. Araújo and Dr. Perkins believe the product they have developed could be a game-changer for treating cavities, providing a safer, cheaper, and more viable option compared to root canal treatment.

The collaborative project combined the expertise of their respective labs to find a better way to treat deep dental caries, or cavities, when they cause exposure of the dental pulp. According to Dr. Araújo, a trained dentist from Brazil, the current clinical approaches to cavities provide a surface-level fix rather than promote healing.

“Caries progression usually affects the dental pulp, which is basically the part of the tooth where you have the vascular system and all the cells that preserve tooth vitality. When the caries progression affects that part of the tissue, usually you need root canal treatment, which removes the dental pulp, or you need to use material to cap that area. That material overall is not promoting very good healing and can cause necrosis on the surface that was exposed,” Dr. Araújo said.

The alternative the duo has developed is a healing gel that can be applied to the area affected by the cavity to restore tooth vitality. Dr. Araújo used his expertise in dental materials to create the gel using collagen, a main component of the healing process of mineralized tissue. Dr. Perkins provided her expertise in molecular biology to integrate WNT signaling, which is a cell signaling pathway that plays crucial roles in various biological processes, including bone development and tissue repair and regeneration. The researchers said adding the WNT family members to the collagen-based gel has led to unprecedented results.

“We created an animal model where we’re testing the ability of these WNTs to heal the tooth better than the current clinical standard, and we have found that one of them, at an almost absurd level, outperforms the current clinical standard,” Dr. Perkins said. “The idea is to give your cells the tools to heal themselves. Instead of treating with the highly toxic and highly basic compounds that are currently used, we’re trying to give the cells a molecule that will prime them for healing.”

The team said the gel would be a quicker, safer, and likely cheaper way to treat dental caries. Additionally, according to the data so far, it would be a more viable alternative, so it would promote longer-term healing instead of the repeated injury that often occurs with problem teeth.

“In the scope of academic grants and research grants, we received a small amount of money, but this small amount of money has allowed us to shift our careers in a way we really didn’t see coming.” 

Rachel Perkins, PhD

In March, Dr. Araújo presented the research at the International Association for Dental Research’s conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, and he and Dr. Perkins have been preparing a paper for publication. The two are also working with the UT Foundation on the path to product development. They are grateful the trainee support initiative gave them the opportunity to come together. “We probably wouldn’t have thought of this project, and we definitely wouldn’t have pushed it forward,” Dr. Perkins said.

“For us, it’s really important as a whole process because we also started managing resources – buying all the reagents, organizing everything, keeping track of what we’re spending and how we’re spending. It all drives our independence, which is very important for our career development,” Dr. Araújo said. Dr. Perkins hopes others will see the impact their support can have and consider contributing to the initiative.

“In the scope of academic grants and research grants, we received a small amount of money, but this small amount of money has allowed us to shift our careers in a way we really didn’t see coming, and it allows us to be really competitive applicants moving forward,” she said. “I’ve already seen firsthand as I’m applying for postdoc positions that people are really interested in hearing about how I got my own funding during grad school and how somebody who’s working on molecular and translational cancer biology is now pivoting into this dental product field. I think it sets us apart as candidates moving forward, and it gives us a competitive advantage.” 

Although both Dr. Perkins and Dr. Araújo are wrapping up their time at UT Health Science Center, their work on this project is far from over. Along the way to creating a product that could positively affect patients, they have formed a dream team that hopes to continue making impactful discoveries together for years to come. “This definitely helped set up what we think is going to be a career-long collaboration, with this project and others.”

This story was initially published in the Spring 2024 College of Graduate Health Sciences Magazine.