While silkworms have long been known to produce silk for fabric, researchers have discovered they also produce the perfect framework to grow stem cells into salivary gland cells.
This finding could play a critical role in providing relief for millions of people with dry mouth, a devastating oral and systemic health concern.
A research team led by Chih-Ko Yeh, B.D.S., Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Comprehensive Dentistry, is the first to use the fibers for stem cell growth. The process has been submitted for a patent.
“Salivary gland stem cells are some of the most difficult cells to grow in culture and retain their function,” Dr. Yeh said. “Until now, retention of salivary gland cell properties has not been possible using other tissue culture techniques. This unique culture system has great potential for future salivary gland research and for the development of new cell-based therapeutics.”
Saliva is critical to good health. It helps with speaking, swallowing, washing food off teeth, initial food digestion and preventing oral infections. Insufficient saliva can cause chronic bad breath, cavities, gum disease, as well as systemic infections.
There is no treatment for low-producing or nonfunctioning salivary glands, and the glands have little regenerative capability.
Silk is a good choice for stem cell scaffolding because it is natural, biodegradable, flexible and porous, providing the developing cells easy access to oxygen and nutrition. It also does not cause inflammation, as other scaffold materials have.
This is the first major step toward helping the more than 4 million people in the U.S. who have Sjögren’s syndrome, a degenerative autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own tear ducts and salivary glands. Low saliva production also affects thousands of patients who have had radiation treatment for head and neck cancer, as well as about 50 percent of older Americans whose medications can cause dry mouth, also known as xerostomia.
Dr. Yeh hopes that within the next decade stem cells can be transfused into damaged human salivary glands to jump-start tissue repair or can be engineered into artificial salivary gland tissue to replace damaged glands.