Friday, September 4, 2020
Huojun Cao

The National Institutes of Health awarded Huojun Cao, assistant professor in the Iowa Institute for Oral Health Research and the Department of Endodontics, a 2-year grant for his project, “Identification of Master Transcription Factors of Dental Epithelial Stem Cell by Computational Method.”

Stem cell therapies are promising avenues in regenerative medicine. For these kinds of dental regenerative therapies, there is evidence that dental epithelial stem cells are necessary to successfully regenerate teeth and dental tissues. Unfortunately, there are no currently available sources for these kinds of dental stem cells in human adults.

The long-term goal of Cao’s research is to establish a method for creating dental epithelial stem cells by genetically reprogramming other cells by means of master transcription factors. A master transcription factor is a gene that regulates other transcription factors and associated genes. Thus, a change in the master transcription factor can significantly alter an entire cell or tissue type, and it, therefore, shows great promise for regenerative medicine. The overall goal is for these newly created stem cells to improve dental regenerative medicine.

Nevertheless, it is cumbersome, costly, and difficult to identify master transcription factors using experimental methods. Cao’s team has developed the prediction tool MTFinder to provide a computational method for identifying these master transcription factors. MTFinder incorporates both transciptome and epigenome data within a Bayesian statistical model so that the tool can identify master transcription factors in an inexpensive, efficient, and comprehensive manner. In preliminary studies, the tool successfully ranked all known master transcription factors in mouse embryonic stem cells and liver hepatocytes.

This particular project uses MTFinder to develop a systematic and comprehensive profile of dental epithelial stem cells. This profile will narrow down the list of probable master transcription factors in these stem cells and allow for future experimental cell-reprogramming research to specifically identify the master transcription factors from a much more manageable list. As a result, the project could play an important role in great advances in regenerative medicine in dentistry.

Brad Amendt is a co-investigator on the project.