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UAlbany Biologist and Nanoscientist Lead Research to Aid Millions of ‘Dry Mouth’ Sufferers

James Castracane of CNSE and Melinda Larsen of the Department of Biological Sciences

Albany, N.Y. (June 26, 2012) – In a project that could provide welcome relief for millions of people who suffer from the effects of “dry mouth,” the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $2.5 million grant to support joint research by faculty at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) of the University at Albany (UAlbany) and UAlbany’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Dr. Michael Liehr, CNSE Vice President for Research, said, “Further underscoring the leadership and commitment of Governor Andrew Cuomo to building a world-class, nanotechnology-driven innovation economy in New York, this funding from the National Institutes of Health leverages the NanoCollege’s growing expertise in nanobioscience and nanomedicine with the capability in basic cell biology research on the main campus of the University at Albany. I congratulate Dr. Larsen and Dr. Castracane on the receipt of this funding, and look forward to the advances made through their collaborative efforts, which offer tremendous potential to improve the quality of life for millions of people.”

“The potential medical significance of the research funded by this award underscores how innovative scientists at UAlbany are delivering on the promise of its Life Sciences and Nanoscale Sciences initiatives,” said Dr. James Dias, UAlbany Vice President for Research. “Attracting and incubating outstanding scientists like Dr. Larsen is a big payoff not only for UAlbany, but for biomedical science worldwide. Our CNSE colleagues like Dr. Castracane bring material science technological expertise. This diversifies and enriches experimental approaches enabling investigators in the life sciences ecosystem to reach, sometimes beyond their grasp of the underpinnings of new technologies that will be tomorrow’s cures.”

The innovative research will target improved treatment of xerostomia, or “dry mouth,” which results from a lack of saliva. Adequate treatments are not currently available for sufferers, who experience a variety of conditions, from oral and dental infections and loss of taste to difficulties with swallowing, digesting, and speaking. The condition can be caused by an autoimmune disease, such as Sjogren’s Syndrome, which leads to lack of saliva production by the salivary glands.

Through the NIH funding, lead investigators Dr. Melinda Larsen, UAlbany Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, and Dr. James Castracane, Professor and Head of CNSE’s Nanobioscience Constellation, will work jointly on research that uses nanofibers to develop bioengineered artificial scaffolds. Those scaffolds would then be deployed to promote the growth of salivary gland cells, with a goal of enabling the future engineering of functional salivary glands.

Dr. Larsen said, “This research project allows my lab to apply our expertise in basic salivary gland biology to an important clinical problem. We are excited about our partnership with CNSE to understand how cells interact with nanomaterials that will enable us to design engineered tissues for future use in patients.”

Dr. Castracane said, “This critical funding from the National Institutes of Health will support groundbreaking research that has great promise to address a medical condition that causes serious health problems for so many people. I am delighted to work in partnership with Dr. Larsen on this innovative research, and excited with the opportunity to further showcase the state-of-the-art capabilities of CNSE’s pioneering Nanobioscience Constellation, as well as the benefits of those efforts.”

This novel approach involves a multi-step process, which includes developing a non-invasive, high-throughput micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) probe to sense salivary cell function in live cells that are grown on nanoscale-sized scaffold materials, something that was not previously possible. The investigators will design “smart” scaffolds that direct cell behavior to stimulate cell function. In addition to informing the future engineering of artificial salivary glands, the principles developed through this research will also be applied to treat diseases in other complex branching organs, and to improve the drug screening process.

Funded through NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the grant covers research to be conducted in Albany over the next five years.

To read more about biological research at UAlbany, visit the Department of Biological Sciences Research page. To read more on nanobioscience at CNSE, visit the Nanobioscience Constellation page.

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