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It’s good to be popular

NIH/NIDCR Research Grant

Dr. Chunlin Qin, far right, associate professor in biomedical sciences and principal investigator for a recent $1.825 million grant, wasn't necessarily expecting all the excitement his research team's findings would generate.

THE TEAM, CLOCKWISE, FROM CENTER: Dr. Jerry Feng, professor in biomedical sciences and co-investigator; Dr. Xiaofang Wang, assistant professor in biomedical sciences; and Dr. Jay Groppe, associate professor in biomedical sciences and co-investigator.

 Media Resources/Steven Doll

The FAM20C molecule has brought nearly $2 million in research funding to TAMBCD. It’s also attracting attention for the college, as health care institutions line up for a chance at collaboration.

Dr. Chunlin Qin has been busy since his research team’s findings on the FAM20C molecule were first published last May. Just not busy solely on the research bench.

Sure, there have been ample hours clocked in the lab, especially since news in fall 2012 that Qin’s team would receive $1.825 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research to further study the molecule.

But there’s something else that’s been begging for his attention: Dental and medical schools have been clamoring for a chance to collaborate with Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry.

The vice president of Howard Hughes Medical Institute was one of the first to seek a collaboration opportunity. Then there was the associate dean from McGill University in Montreal, who visited campus in February.

Qin — associate professor in biomedical sciences and principal investigator of the study — has fielded too many collaboration requests to agree to them all. Some have been accepted, and others have been declined.

To date, TAMBCD’s newest long-distance partners include Harvard School of Dental Medicine, McGill University, the University of California – San Diego School of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh.

It’s all because of one little molecule: FAM20C. TAMBCD just so happens to be the only institution in the world that possesses the unique gene knockout model, in which the FAM20C gene has been selectively nullified.

One hot little molecule

When the research team of biomedical sciences faculty — composed of Qin, Dr. Xiaofang Wang, Dr. Jerry Feng and Dr. Jay Groppe — was preparing findings for grant submission, they had no idea of the fervor they would create in the research field.

In May 2012 their research was published in PLOS Genetics as the cover page article for the issue. That’s when the phone started ringing.

“I didn’t expect it was going to be that exciting,” Qin says. “In the past year, the research on this molecule has gotten very hot. At the moment it’s very attractive to many people, and this attraction is also good for the school.”

But why is this so?

FAM20C is different from its two “siblings” in the protein family FAM20, because unlike FAM20A, which is essential to enamel formation, or FAM20B, which is necessary for cartilage development, FAM20C plays a critical role with all the four types of mineralized tissues in mammals: bone, enamel (the outer layer of tooth crown); dentin (the bulky tissue shaping the contour of a tooth); and cementum (outer layer of tooth root).

“In the next five to 10 years, there will be a lot of things happening with this molecule.”

—Dr. Chunlin Qin

Knowing the protein’s role is only half of the equation. Qin’s group discovered that the loss of FAM20C leads not only to bone and tooth defects but also a reduction of serum phosphorous levels.

In a nutshell, FAM20C is “critical for regulating the total body phosphate in addition to the formation and mineralization of bone and tooth,” Qin says.

“It doesn’t only affect the dental field; it has a very broad influence,” he adds. “This is a molecule present in many tissues. At this moment we believe it is most important for bone and teeth, while it is also likely to play important roles in the nerve, muscle, fat metabolism and immune systems.”

As a result, the college has attracted attention from experts in endocrinology, obesity and diabetes, and even pharmacology.

Dr. Paul Dechow, chair of biomedical sciences, says the protein could represent a major advance in the understanding of mineralized tissue development.

“While we suspected its importance, the attention it has attracted from both within and outside the bone research community has been gratifying and attests to the high quality and hard work of our TAMBCD scientists,” Dechow says.

In all of Qin’s 20 years in the research field, including generating approximately $5 million in NIH funds among three R01 grants and three smaller NIH grants, he says he’s never seen this much attention focused on one study alone. He suspects it won’t die down anytime soon.

“In the next five to 10 years, there will be a lot of things happening with this molecule,” Qin says.


“The Roles of FAM20C (DMP4) in Odontogenesis and Osteogenesis” 

A scientist’s view of the research study

The goal: To increase understanding of how FAM20C functions in bone and tooth formation, including the mechanistic aspects of biomineralization and the molecular basis for genetic and metabolic disorders affecting the craniofacial region and skeleton. This may eventually help with development of treatments for diseases like rickets, and soft and fragile enamel and dentin.

The hypothesis: FAM20C promotes the formation and mineralization of hard tissues by differentiating the cells that form these tissues and by playing a part in regulating phosphate homeostasis (via mediation of the growth factor FGF23).

The method:

  1. Evaluate the molecular pathogenesis of FAM20C-associated disorders.
  2. Determine if FAM20C is involved in biomineralization via the regulation of FGF23 and phosphate homeostasis.
  3. Determine if FAM20C regulates dentin matrix protein 1, which is essential to bone and tooth formation.