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dental research

The Root of Success

August 2003

by Amanda Gallagher

Imagine a future where the dentist ditches the drill, dentures donít exist and pain is, well, nothing but a painful memory. Then enter the Health Science Centerís Dental School. The winding cinderblock corridors lead to some of the most exciting research laboratories in the world. Here, scientists are discovering new ways to fill cavities, grow teeth and alleviate excruciating pain - and remarkably, many of these researchers havenít even earned their terminal degree.

Not only is the Health Science Center home to some of the worldís most renowned dental scientists, it now boasts extraordinary research students who have stunned academia with a streak of success in national and international research competitions.

"The Dental School has always had a positive image relating to producing quality practicing dentists," said Kenneth Kalkwarf, D.D.S., dean of the Dental School. "But more and more recently weíve received accolades for our dental research students."

The American Association for Dental Research (AADR) sponsors a Student Research Scholarship Competition each year. With 56 dental schools in the country, and about 20 research awards, each school should average an award once every two to three years. "Weíre way ahead of that," Dr. Kalkwarf said.

From 1987 to 2002, Health Science Center students won a total of 89 AADR student research awards. The University of Michigan placed a distant second at 56 total awards, followed by the University of Iowa at 34 awards. Ivy League Harvard brought in 27 awards over the past 15 years. And thatís just one competition.

Last year, Dental School students claimed five of the eight awards in the American Academy of Periodontology Orban Research Competition. One of those awards was first place. The American College of Prosthodontics Sharry Research Competition awarded two of its three prizes to Health Science Center students, including first place. In 2003, six students were selected as national finalists in the AADR Warner Lambert Hatton Competition and two dental students were selected as national finalists in the AADR Caulk/Dentsply Research Competition.

Scott Leune was one of those finalists. Leune is a rising third-year dental student who spent his summer break studying tooth and nerve samples.

"My research involves the use of peripheral opioid receptors for pain management, specifically in dental pain," Leune said. Opioids are powerful pain killers found in drugs such as morphine and codeine. "They are the gold standard in pain medication, but within the central nervous system they cause serious limiting side effects such as nausea, vomiting, dependence and respiratory depression," Leune said. "We are looking at different ways to use this class of drug to activate peripheral opioid receptors on nerve fibers around teeth without crossing the blood/brain barrier to the central nervous system and therefore avoiding the unfavorable side effects."

The research, guided by Kenneth Hargreaves, D.D.S., professor and chairman of endodontics, has major clinical implications. While he and his team are studying pain management in teeth, scientists can apply the findings to any part of the human body. And that is part of why Leune finds the work so important.

"Undergraduate research sparks an interest in students who will become the problem solvers of tomorrow and is a vital part of the future of research and the profession," Leune said. Because of the competitions, he already has an established research portfolio and has earned his first grants from the AADR. But even if he decides to go into general practice, Leune believes research experience will give him an edge over fellow dentists.

"Companies try to sell dentists their products based on research. You learn to tell the difference between good research and bad research," Leune said. "It also gives you the chance to learn new technology in your field and gives you a great opportunity to give something back to thedental profession."

So if, as Leune says, "thereís nothing bad about research," then why arenít other top dental schools having the same success as the Health Science Center? "Itís two things," Dr. Kalkwarf said. "We have high-achieving students. We only have 90 positions open for students each year, but we receive about 1,000 applications. And it also is a matter of our faculty getting students involved and providing mentorship."

Dr. Kalkwarf credits Mary MacDougall, Ph.D., for much of the success. Dr. MacDougall is a world-renowned scientist as well as professor of pediatric dentistry and associate dean for research in the Dental School. This year she received the AADR Mentor of the Year award. "Our Dental School historically has seen the importance and significance of dental research, so our program is very developed. It offers a lot of opportunities for students to get involved in these competitions," Dr. MacDougall said. "We have a great environment in the Dental School and Health Science Center. We have very enthusiastic students and great faculty mentorship."

The Dental School also has just completed the first year of a new multi-million dollar, five-year training grant that provides support for four D.D.S./Ph.D. students as well as 18 dental students.

"Itís part of our mission to develop new knowledge and to provide resources to make significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge," Dr. MacDougall said. And with her students on the cusp of brilliant dental careers, they are guaranteed to find their success deeply rooted in the researchbasics that began at the countryís leading dental school.

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Updated 12/11/14