Assistant Professor Daniel Harrington, PhD, of UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry has won a coveted National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award. The award will provide Harrington nearly $583,000 in support of his research, titled “Epithelial Organization in Thin Bioprinted Hydrogels.”
CAREER Awards are among the NSF’s most prestigious honors, with an estimated 500 per year across all disciplines. The award supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.
Harrington’s NSF grant is the second awarded to a UTHealth Houston researcher in the last 10 years and third in the last 20.
“I’m very honored to receive the NSF CAREER Award and feel proud I was able to bring this grant to both UTHealth Houston and the School of Dentistry to demonstrate that we can be a place that operates at the interface of both fundamental and applied studies,” Harrington said. “One unusual aspect of the NSF CAREER grant is they are really funding the person, as much as the scientific proposal, which makes me even more grateful as a researcher.”
The award will provide five years of funding to support Harrington’s research aimed at applying a new method of bioprinting to epithelial regeneration, with the intent of delivering more precise deposition of cells within supportive hydrogels.
Thin epithelia form robust barriers throughout the human body, aligning as protective interfaces between interior and exterior environments. Epithelia also organize with higher complexity to form glands, such as the pancreas, sweat glands, and salivary glands.
As Harrington notes, glandular epithelia rely on a soft, layered extracellular matrix with a directional organization to polarize these cells and enable their secretory function. Unfortunately, if damaged by severe injury or disease, delicate branched tissues like the salivary gland often respond with a repair — rather than regenerative — response, yielding a permanently dysfunctional, disorganized array of scar tissue. The resulting loss of salivary function can have dramatic impacts on oral health and quality of life. Three-dimensional (3D) bioprinting is one method that could have potential application to this need.
Harrington’s project will develop methods to leverage recent advances in biomaterials and coaxial microfluidic bioprinting to print ultrathin hydrogel layers, with controlled gradients in biochemical composition and mechanical properties, that drive cellular organization and phenotype display of co-encapsulated epithelia and surrounding mesenchyme.
Multidisciplinary teams of dental students, graduate students, and undergraduates will partner together to implement unique, low-cost bioprinters toward these same problems. Ultimately, Harrington hopes their use and teaching of lower-cost, open-source bioprinters will expand their access to trainees and in publications. Bioprinting with soft hydrogels and co-encapsulated cells is still a new frontier for dental research, and is yet to be included in student curricula.
“The method we will be using to print with the Replistruder 4.0 is called FRESH — Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels — printing, which is an exciting and innovative way to get around the problems that happen when printing soft hydrogels,” Harrington said. “Our students will collaborate in multidisciplinary teams, learning how to design 3D structures, print them, and assess their fidelity to the original designs.”
Both the Replistruder, and FRESH printing, were designed by Carnegie Mellon researchers under a prior NSF CAREER Award, demonstrating how such discoveries can feed forward to support future generations.
A key element of Harrington’s CAREER Award is to engage dental students in team-based research with biologists and engineers, so that dentists might retain abilities and interest in basic research throughout their training, while conveying clinical concepts and utility to their teammates. Graduate and undergraduate student researchers from the Harrington Lab have already received national recognition for their bioprinting work, winning multiple prestigious awards at the American Association for Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research and Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists national conferences. As Harrington puts it, “Our lab is only as strong as its team members, and I couldn’t be prouder of their achievements in this field.”
A trained materials engineer, Harrington received his PhD from Northwestern University. His research addresses the molecular design, synthesis, and evaluation of polymeric and supramolecular biomaterials in a variety of tissue engineering applications. He has directed the research efforts of more than 30 undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, medical residents, and technicians, and additionally co-advised a similar number through collaborations.