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Volpe researcher taps wealth of scientific supporters to advance stem cell projects

April 20, 2015

By Jean Williams

Dr. Kim
Gaithersburg, Md. — "Location, location, location" isn't just a refrain to heed for optimum results when establishing a business or buying a home. Turns out, it's also a consideration when it comes to scientific research. So suggests Dr. Jeffrey Kim, a dental researcher with the ADA Foundation's Dr. Anthony Volpe Research Center.

The VRC is housed on the campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which affords Dr. Kim and his fellow researchers access to other brilliant scientists who can serve as collaborators on various projects underway at VRC.

"It's really a great environment. You cannot ask for more. There are very talented people, scientists, at NIST, Volpe Research Center, University of Maryland and National Institutes of Health," Dr. Kim said. "I spent a lot of time in the last year just connecting those dots, calling people, emailing people, asking them scientific questions and if they're interested in working together and developing projects."
Those communications bore fruit and Dr. Kim is enjoying multiple collaborations within the scientific community in and around the NIST campus.

Formerly known as the Paffenbarger Research Center, the VRC is housed on the grounds at NIST, a federal government research campus, where it has been since 1928. Previously operated by the ADA and now by the ADA Foundation, the lab conducts unique research in cutting-edge fields of biomaterial and tissue engineering technologies.

Dr. Kim was a faculty member at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Dentistry in the Restorative Division for two years before joining the ADA Foundation's VRC in early 2014. His background includes earning his D.D.S. and a Ph.D. in oral biology and medicine from UCLA.

Last year, the journal Stem Cell Research published an article online that Dr. Kim authored about his fetal alcohol syndrome project.

As in his fetal alcohol syndrome project in 2014, stem cells also are at the root of Dr. Kim's current work. His three most recent projects include explorations of the oral effects of e-cigarette consumption, medication-induced xerostomia and dental pulp regeneration.

"Whether treating cells with alcohol or aerosol from e-cigarettes, the genetic and epigenetic analyses that I do are very similar," he said.

In the e-cigarettes project, Dr. Kim is working with fellow VRC researcher Wojtek Tutak, Ph.D. Their team is exposing oral stem cells to the "e-liquid" inside e-cigarettes via the aerosol created through the battery-operated device's heating mechanism. "Electronic cigarettes are gaining a lot of popularity, especially among high school students," Dr. Kim said. "In 2014, there are estimates that about 10 percent of all high school students in the U.S. tried smoking an e-cigarette at least once. At this point, we really don't know what type of effect it has on oral health.

"The key is to understand the chemical byproducts when the e-liquid is going through the heating element — because the heating element will obviously aerosolize the liquid and break it into smaller byproducts. We're working to comprehensively characterize the aerosol by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry and exposing oral cells, such as oral fibroblasts, to the aerosol, and find out if there are any genetic and epigenetic changes to the cells so that we can have a research model to study the human oral cavity, which is exposed to the aerosol from an e-cigarette device."

In addition to the e-cigarettes project, Dr. Kim also is hard at work on dental pulp regeneration in conjunction with scientists at the Naval Postgraduate Dental School at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. "We have a collaborative project with the Navy to understand stem cell self-renewal and differentiation of dental pulp stem cells," Dr. Kim said.

Their ultimate goal is a discovery that could lead to potential regenerative therapies for growing new teeth. "So instead of doing root canal therapy, which is removing the pulp and replacing with a filler, gutta-percha, at this point, the future would be a cell-based therapy where you can reintroduce stem cells of the tooth and the stem cells will regenerate the pulp."

In his third ongoing project, Dr. Kim is exploring drugs that incite xerostomia. Primarily, his research involves treating salivary glands with methamphetamine. "When we were picking drugs to test, we wanted to make sure that we picked a powerful drug that can cause xerostomia in severe ways," he said. "So we tested with methamphetamine and we've been getting some very interesting results."

Using a mouse model, Dr. Kim and his team dissect salivary glands from mice and then grow them in a culture. "The exact protocol is called branching morphogenesis," he said. "For 48  hours, the salivary gland in the Petri dish can grow normally. Their epithelial structures branch out; blood vessels develop; nerves form and so on."

The growing glands are then treated with methamphetamine and other various drugs. "The interesting thing about some of the drugs was that branching morphogenesis was inhibited," Dr. Kim said. "So the salivary gland didn't function so well. We're beginning to find out why that's happening.  If we understand the chemical and biological processes we can re-formulate the drugs so that they may not have xerostomia as a side effect. That's our ultimate goal."

Dr. Kim expressed excitement about the three projects. "I think we're asking the right questions at the right time," he said.

He also reiterated his enthusiasm for the partnerships and support that Volpe researchers are able to forge in the surrounding research community. "NIST and NIH/NIDCR have been really good to us," he said. "The University of Maryland has been a great research partner as well. Having experts in respective fields really helps because we cannot do everything. Our projects are improved a lot by just talking and working with other scientists near us. That's been going really well."