USC researchers receive $12.5 million grant to build out unique facial database

The project seeks new research data for FaceBase, a freely available collection of DNA samples, data and images related to abnormalities of the head and facial bones.

August 28, 2019 Leigh Hopper

You’re a researcher who wants to learn more about cleft lip and cleft palate, which are common but not well-understood birth defects. You could start with the vast online holdings of the National Library of Medicine, but what if instead you find a special collection devoted to all abnormalities of the head and facial bones?

Not only is the collection incredibly rich — containing manuscripts, images, videos, scans of human faces, DNA samples and datasets of genetic information — it also comes with a community of experts eager to guide you and collaborate. That’s what USC aims to create with FaceBase III, a project of USC’s dentistry and engineering schools, which was just awarded a $12.5 million grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

“We’re looking at really challenging problems, which can’t be solved by a single group or one person’s expertise,” said Yang Chai, professor, George and MaryLou Boone Chair in Craniofacial Biology and associate dean of research for the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC and director of USC’s Center of Craniofacial and Molecular Biology. “To accelerate the science and better serve families at risk for these conditions, we need a comprehensive and systematic understanding of how faces form in healthy children and what goes wrong to cause common malformations.”

Inspiring a community to transform craniofacial research

Nearly half of all birth defects involve the face and skull. For the most part, scientists remain unclear as to why they occur. The most common craniofacial abnormality is cleft lip or cleft palate; another is craniosynostosis, in which the sutures — or soft spots — in an infant’s skull fuse too early and lead to a misshapen head along with dangerous pressure on the brain. Treatment may require the skills of dentists, plastic surgeons, neurosurgeons, audiologists, genetic counselors and ear, nose and throat specialists.

“We’re trying to create a community of researchers around the exchange and organization of data, and transform the way craniofacial research is done,” said Carl Kesselman, a dean’s professor in industrial and systems engineering and division director in the Information Sciences Institute of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “This could be an exemplar. Not many dental schools have access to the largest computer science research institute in the country.”

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research launched the first version of FaceBase in 2009, focusing on the middle region of the face and the genetics related to developmental disorders like cleft lip and cleft palate. The data collected from these projects created a unique, freely available resource for the scientific community. Since 2014, USC scientists have been developing FaceBase’s central data hub, which in its second phase expanded to encompass other genetic disorders and the development of the entire craniofacial complex.

This third phase focuses on motivating craniofacial researchers around the globe to share their own research data, continuing work on the data repository and fostering a community of active users through outreach activities and dissemination of new features and available data sets.

Past FaceBase contributors have included researchers from more than 24 universities nationwide.