More than 15 million root canals are performed each year in the United States. That’s 41,000 every day. Improving the long-term success of these procedures is part of what Avathamsa Athirasala aims to do. She is a research assistant in the lab of Luiz Bertassoni, D.D.S., Ph.D., in the School of Dentistry’s Department of Restorative Dentistry, and lead author of a recent article published by the lab in Scientific Reports.
What are you researching now—and why is it important?
I work in a lab that’s using stem cells and 3D printing to create dental tissue with fully functioning blood vessels – and what we do is relevant for any other engineered tissue in the body. That’s pretty exciting. Right now, when someone has a root canal, it typically involves removing infected or dead dental tissue and replacing it with inert synthetic materials. That means the tooth is not biologically alive, so it is brittle and prone to cracking. We’re interested in either speeding up the formation of blood vessels or make preformed blood vessels in the graft before we introduce it into the body.
My part in our work includes using stem cells and finding biomaterials that provide a good environment for these cells. We also use 3D printing-based techniques to engineer multicellular tissues. Using these methods, we can engineer an entire tissue with its multiple components.
The technique we have developed for pre-vascularized pulp tissue implants doesn’t involve fancy, large equipment and is fairly simple. This is something we hope to see in a dentists’ office eventually. The beauty of it is that it’s so simple to do. We printed a fiber with a 3D printer, surrounded it with a collagen like gel, and then pulled the fiber out and filled the space with endothelial cells and stem cells. That is when the magic happens — you see the stem cells and endothelial cells organize around the hollow tube, creating a pipe-like blood vessel. It’s actually fairly simple.
What’s been your most exciting moment of discovery?
My most exciting moment as a researcher was the moment I actually saw cells form a vessel guided by our scaffold. We were engineering a blood vessel and I had no idea what to expect when I looked into the microscope. I remember turning to my lead researcher and he told me, “Look! That’s it! We just formed a blood vessel.” And this was actually clear under the naked eye even before we put it under the microscope. Later, when we stained the blood vessels to identify different cell types with colors, it was stunning under the microscope. I carried the microscope photo all around our lab, making everyone look at it.
What does your day-to-day life as a researcher look like?
I used to think of scientists as individuals isolated in their lab, but it’s not like that at all. Our work takes a lot of teamwork. Everyone in here comes from different backgrounds, with different expertise. It is amazing how much of a team effort one project requires. The lab is like a big, collective family. That’s one of the really great things about working here. Most of my time is spent in the lab, working with cells and models. But a lot of it is like running a household, there is administrative work to tend to and, of course, cleaning.
In the Lab
In the Lab looks at the people in the laboratories — and in clinics — who help make OHSU such a vibrant research institution. In each post, researchers and clinician scientists describe their current work and answer the same three questions.