Kaartinen Lab

The University of Michigan School of Dentistry




Dr. Kaartinen’s laboratory is interested in underlying molecular reasons that lead to a formation of common craniofacial and cardiac birth defects in human newborn babies. Their particular interest is in TGF-beta/BMP superfamily signaling. They have a long history of using gene targeting in mouse ES cells and subsequent generation of knockout, knockin and conditional/tissue-specific knockout mice, which form a primary research model in their research laboratory.

Dr. Kaartinen’s laboratory is currently investigating a role TGF-beta superfamily signaling in lip fusion, and differentiation and anterior-posterior patterning of the palatal epithelium, regulation of TGF-beta3 expression in the palatal epithelium and the role of TGF-beta3 signaling in the palatal mesenchyme. Moreover, they currently study the role of a novel negative regulator of TGF-beta signaling (Trim33) in craniofacial development, and they have a project to identify micro-RNAs that regulate gene expression in the prefusion palatal epithelium.

Studies on cardiac development include investigations on a role of TGF-beta signaling via the Alk5 receptor in the epicardium, the role of Alk2 mediated signaling in outflowt tract and aortic valve development, and BMP type I receptor signaling interactions in atrio-ventricular canal transformation.


Abstract-1: Congenital cardiac malformations are the most common birth defects in humans affecting about 1 in 100 newborns. While recent studies both in mice and in humans have identified several different signaling processes and transcriptional regulators that are required for appropriate cardiac development, very little is still known about interactions between these factors during heart morphogenesis, and about pathogenetic mechanisms leading to the congenital heart disease (CHD) in humans. We have previously demonstrated that the BMP type I receptor Alk2 plays a critical role both in cardiac neural crest cells as well as in endocardial cells regulating aortico-pulmonary septation and endocardial transformation (EndMT), while other investigators have demonstrated that another type I receptor mediating BMP signaling called Alk3 is playing a critical non-redundant role in cardiac outflow tract septation and endocardial transformation as well. Moreover, we have recently discovered mutations in the coding region of Alk2 and Alk3 genes in human patients suffering from CHD. However, it is currently not known, how Alk2 and Alk3-mediated BMP signaling pathways interact and cooperate with each other to regulate EndMT and how TGF-b signaling via Alk5 is coordinated with BMP signaling in this process. In this proposal I want to test the central hypothesis that that concerted action of TGF-b and BMP signaling is required for appropriate endocardial-to-mesenchymal transformation (EndMT) during mammalian cardiac development. In aim 1 we propose to determine the collaborative signaling via the BMP type I receptors Alk2, Alk3 in EndMT and endocardial cushion development, and in aim 2 we propose to test whether signaling via the TGF-b-type I receptor Alk5 is critical for BMP-induced endocardial EMT. Our unique experimental models and state-of-art strategy will allow us to determine the role Tgf-2/Bmp signaling in EMT during cardiac development. Collectively, the proposed experiments are likely to be of critical importance in attempting to understand the molecular bases of endocardial defects in humans, and may ultimately allow us to develop possible preventive and/or therapeutic approaches to treat congenital cardiac defects during the fetal period and to identify new therapeutic targets to treat heart disease.


The long-term goal of this proposal is to understand specific molecular mechanisms of Tgf-beta signaling that take place during palatal fusion. This is very important since failure of these processes has been shown to lead to cleft palate, one of the most common birth defects in humans. Others and we have previously shown that during palatal fusion transforming growth factor-betas (Tgf-betas) induce several downstream responses that contribute to the successful palatogenesis. This proposal focuses on the role of epithelial and mesenchymal Tgf-beta signals in coordination of palatal fusion. Our overall hypothesis is: Tgf-beta/Bmp signaling events both in the palatal mesenchyme and in the epithelium are critical for successful palatal fusion and play a concerted role during palatogenesis. We propose to test this hypothesis by five Specific Aims. In Aim 1 we propose to determine the effect of neural crest cell specific abrogation of the Tgf-b type I receptor AIk2 on palatal development. In Aim 2, we propose to define the role of Tgf-beta type I receptors AIk2 and AIk5 in the palatal midline epithelium during palatal fusion, in Aim 3 we propose to determine the role of reciprocal epithelio-mesenchymal Tgf-beta signaling during palatal fusion, in Aim 4 we propose to analyze why direct contact between the palatal epithelium and mesenchyme can bypass the Tgf-beta3 signaling defect, and finally in Aim 5 we propose to determine the role of gap junctions in Tgf-beta-induced palatal midline epithelial fusion. Our unique experimental models and the state-of-art strategy allow us to determine the role Tgf-beta signaling via AIk5 and AIk2 in palatogenesis. Collectively, the proposed experiments are likely to be of critical importance in attempting to understand the molecular bases of facial and palatal cleftings in humans, and to develop possible therapeutic approaches to treat cleft palate during the fetal period.


vesa kaartinen

Vesa M. Kaartinen, PhD


Vesa M. Kaartinen, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Biologic and Material Sciences and Prosthodontics. He received MSc (1986) and PhD (1991) degrees from the University of Kuopio, Finland studying the molecular bases of a lysosomal storage disease, aspartylglucosaminuria. He then began a postdoctoral fellowship at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles with Dr. John Groffen and Dr. Nora Heisterkamp, where he specialized in developmental biology with particular emphasis in mouse genetics and organogenesis. In 1997, he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California, and the Developmental Biology Program in the Saban Research Institute. In 2008, he joined the faculty of University of Michigan. His research program focuses on growth factor signaling in craniofacial and cardiac development. Dr. Kaartinen has served in several institutional and national committees including both NIH and American Heart Association grant review panels, and he is a reviewer for many scientific journals.


The most recent publications are reported below.

View the complete listing of publications.


Kaartinen Lab
University of Michigan School of Dentistry
1011 N University Ave,
Room D2305
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
Phone: (734) 647-6341