NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Body, Heal Thyself

NIDCR Symposium Explores Promise of Autotherapies

Dr. Martha Somerman opens the symposium.
NIDCR director Dr. Martha Somerman opens the symposium.

Photo:  Credit Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

A diverse group of scientists met recently in Lipsett Amphitheater to discuss the past, present and future of autotherapies—treatments based on the body’s natural ability to heal and protect itself. “Autotherapies: Enhancing Our Innate Healing Capacity,” hosted by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, featured a morning of presentations from leading-edge researchers in the field.

NIDCR director Dr. Martha Somerman opened the symposium by pointing out that the meeting was a direct result of a strategic planning initiative to envision the future of NIDCR research. Five specific themes emerged from the NIDCR 2030 effort to guide the institute’s research priorities. Advancing the development of autotherapies is one of those five themes and the first to be explored via a symposium.

“The fact that we are here today discussing autotherapies is a testament to the talent and passion of NIDCR-supported dental, oral and craniofacial researchers,” said Somerman. “Over the past several decades, they’ve moved our field forward and have positioned us to be a leader in this new era of science.”

NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, former director of NIDCR, described the concept of autotherapies and NIH’s support of their development. Cancer immunotherapies, which harness the body’s immune system to fight malignant cells, are probably the best known autotherapies in clinical use. For example, NCI’s Dr. Steven Rosenberg and his team have pioneered immunotherapies to treat melanoma.

Presenters who followed revealed a dynamic field of inquiry in which important advances have been made, while emphasizing that further progress will require more questions to be asked and answered.

Dr. Jeffrey Karp and his team at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have developed a therapy that uses small molecule drugs in a mouse model to reprogram noise-damaged sensory cells in the inner ear to restore hearing. A phase II study in humans is expected to begin later in 2018.

At the symposium are Somerman, Tabak, Lee, Ferris, and Karp.
At the autotherapies symposium are (from l) Somerman; Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH principal deputy director; Dr. Janice Lee, NIDCR clinical director; Dr. Robert Ferris, director, Hillman Cancer Center, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; and Dr. Jeffrey Karp, associate professor, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. Not shown is Dr. Edward Botchwey, associate professor, Wallace H. Coulter department of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech & Emory University, who also presented at the symposium.

Photo:  Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

NIDCR clinical director Dr. Janice Lee discussed her team’s study of children’s innate ability to self-correct or regenerate a large bone defect compared to adults and noted a potential role for bone morphogenic protein, BMP6, in aging environments. She also described a study conducted by another research team on autocorrection of an in utero cleft palate in a mouse model using small molecule therapy with an inhibitor of Dkk1.

Dr. Edward Botchwey of Georgia Tech and Emory University focused on how membrane lipidomics can be used to determine the potency of biomanufactured mesenchymal stem cells.

Dr. Robert Ferris of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center ended the symposium with a discussion of his team’s study of the molecular pathways that allow head and neck cancer tumors to escape immune system surveillance and tactics to restore the immune system’s recognition of malignant cells.

In the final session, the panel of presenters fielded questions from the audience and engaged in a discussion on the gaps, challenges and opportunities for advancing autotherapies research.

View the archived symposium at

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