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New Equation: Silk + Stem Cells = Salivary Glands

What do silk and saliva have in common? They are both part of a unique experiment going on in San Antonio, a study that could change the lives of millions of people who suffer from dry mouth.  Stem cells may help solve a common, painful problem.


Chances are you will never find Judie Willette without a bottle of water in her hand.

The 72-year-old San Antonio woman suffers from severe dry mouth, a condition brought on by an autoimmune disorder called Sjogren’s Syndrome.

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Texas Public Radio
72-year-old Judie Willette of San Antonio suffers from severe dry mouth.



She has to drink water all day long just to talk, chew and swallow normally. And it’s painful."It didn’t bother me that much at the beginning. But it got progressively worse and this is going on over about 12 years now," Willette said.

Oral Medicine specialist Michaell Huber, DDS of the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry says lack of saliva is more common than you might think. He can tell Willette is suffering just by looking in her mouth.

"There’s a lack of glistening, a parching of the tongue," Huber explained.

Dry mouth can also be caused by medications, age, or even as a side effect of radiation for cancer. Huber says it impacts patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Michaell Huber, DDS, works for the dental school at UT Health San Antonio.


"Imagine if you woke up this morning, like most of us, and your mouth is dry and sticky and you want to immediately get that rinsed out," Huber lined out. "Imagine feeling like that the entirety of your day."

We all have three main pairs of salivary glands. They’re considered organs. But they are delicate tissue, and once they’re damaged, the body doesn’t regenerate them.

Only a few drugs exist to manage dry mouth. Some people can’t take them. Others hate the side effects.

That’s why Chih-Ko Yeh , BDS, Ph.D., and Xiao-Dong Chen, MD, MS, Ph.D., of the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry decided there had to be a better way to help people.

"There is a need to cure salivary gland disease," Yeh stated.

Yeh said the idea is to use stem cells from the patient’s own body derived from bone marrow to grow new salivary gland cells. In order to coax those stem cells into becoming the right kind of cell, researchers are using silk from worms and spiders as scaffolding.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Chih Ko Yeh, BDS, Ph.D., and Xiao-Dong Chen, MD, MS, Ph.D., are the scientists working to grow salivary gland cells from stem cells on silk scaffolding.


Silk is a natural protein that mimics the microenvironment of the salivary gland. Silk works well, the scientists say, because it’s biodegradable, flexible and porous, providing easy access to the oxygen and nutrition the cells need to grow. Chen and his partner are using rats to test out ways to place the cells in the body to jumpstart tissue repair.

"Then we can deliver those cells to a damaged salivary gland by injection, local injection," Chen explained.

Yeh and Chen’s early work was published in the journal Tissue Engineering.

Huber said this leap into regenerative medicine is intriguing. "Replacing organs is a great thing if we can pull it off," he added.

Patients like Willette are holding out hope. "

There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to find something to help with this," Willette said.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Millions of patients suffer from some degree of dry mouth.


In 2016, the researchers received a grant of more than a million dollars from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (part of the National Institutes of Health) to continue their promising work.

Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.