Stem cell research will be a focus of Australia's first international translational dental science research program, based at UWA.
The collaboration between the School of Dentistry and similar schools at the Universities of Leeds and Nanjing will push the boundaries of stem cell research using periodontal tissue, or teeth.
The program was initiated by Tony Phan, whom UWANews reader may remember has Motor Neurone Disease.
While he is unable to brush his own teeth, Assistant Professor Phan has set up this collaboration to exploit the potential of teeth in a major biological and clinical project.
While many doors have closed for him, the digital world, through the use of voice-activated software, has opened many more and he is in the final stages of setting up the collaboration.
The universities, all members of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), will share resources, equipment and intellectual property to discover unique ways of regenerating periodontal tissue that has been damaged by disease or physical trauma.
The cultivation and use of stem cells will be a major part of the team's research.
"The dental field is sitting on an untapped goldmine of knowledge in terms of stem cells," A/Professor Phan said. "These stem cells, both from periodontal and pulp regions, are very easy to extract and cultivate, compared to bone marrow or embryonic cells.
"The periodontal stem cells have the same potential for cloning but none of the ethical implications as they are cultivated from teeth that are usually thrown away in the bin.
"One of our major aims is to create a dental stem cell library that can be freely accessed and used by any researcher in the stem cell field. Instead of having to focus time and money on extracting stem cells from origins that are difficult or have strong ethical implications, researchers can easily access and use the cells from a stem cell library," he said.
His debilitating disease has not stopped A/Professor Phan from continuing hisresearch and it was a paper he published in the high ranking Journal of Periodontal Research in June that attracted the attention of a PhD student at the University of Leeds' Dental Institute.
"I was writing about a family of proteins that I had identified and patented which allow cells within teeth to survive stress and damage," he said.
"The student who was interested asked if she could come here and work with me so I got talking to her supervisor, Professor Xubien Yang, Head of Stem Cell and Tissue Engineering Research at Leeds University.
"It turned out that we come from the same background - orthopaedics - and he has also patented proteins involved in periodontal regeneration. We wanted to work together so decided to formalise a collaboration and, as Professor Yang is also on the staff at Nanjing's dental school, we extended the collaboration to that university and its deputy dean of dental studies, Professor Wenmei Wang.
"Leeds has a strong dental clinical research component, Nanjing has a strong and cost-efficient animal research area, while UWA has a strong oral biology component. This will allow us to achieve true translational research - moving the theory forward into the practical and clinical arena. While we are all sharing knowledge and funding, we all win."
A student exchange will be part of the collaboration agreement which the partners hope to sign this month. A/ P rofessor Phan has applied for a Research Collaboration Award through WUN, to kick off the partnership by funding travel to Leeds and Nanjing for his post-doctoral staff.
The Head of UWA 's School of Dentistry and Director of the Oral Health Centre of WA , Winthrop Professor Andrew Smith, has decided to extend the partnership to a schoolwide collaboration.
"We are very excited at the opportunities that WUN has created to have a tripartite research relationship with our sister schools in Nanjing and Leeds," Professor Smith said. "We hope to formalise the relationships through memoranda of understanding with the goal of setting up a joint translational dental research centre.
"In addition UWA will have a major input to the WUN Oral Health Conference to be held in Leeds in 2012, hopefully to be followed by a meeting here in Perth in 2014."
A/Professor Phan said oral and periodontal diseases could play a long-term role in people's health. "There are strong associations between periodontal disease and heart disease, premature birth and cancer. It is important that we try to understand and reverse periodontal disease and damage, to save lives in the long term."
A/Professor Phan's own medical condition has deteriorated since he was featured in UWANews in May. He now has a full-time carer, funded by the Vice-Chancellor, to enable him to stay at work.
"I am indebted to Professor Robson for his generous support," he said. "I feel he has treated me as a human being, rather than a liability."
Published in UWA News, 1 November 2010