Dental Schools Put NIH Funding to Work in Research

Richard Gawel

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Research may be essential to every dental school, but it can cost a lot of money. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards grants to schools to perform this research, prompting the nonprofit Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research (BRIMR) to break down the numbers and rank which schools got the most NIH money in 2020.

According to the BRIMR, 47 dental schools collectively received 647 NIH awards totaling $245,681,511 in fiscal year 2020. The total value of this funding has increased nearly 22% over the past decade, from 2011’s $201 million total awarded to 49 dental schools. The top 10 dental schools receiving NIH funding in 2020 include:

Together, these 10 schools accounted for about 60% of all NIH dollars awarded to dental schools in 2020, up from about 50% in 2011. Also, seven of 2020’s top 10 schools were among the top 10 in 2011 as well.

The BRIMR bases its rankings on official year-end data published by the NIH, which awarded more than $34 billion across 60,000 awards to universities and other grantee organizations of all types in 2020.

The great majority of awards come from the NIH’s National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), which issued its own list of dental institutions receiving funding in fiscal year 2020, though substantial amounts also are awarded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The NIDCR’s top 10 for 2020 includes:

  • The University of Michigan School of Dentistry: $20,235,326
  • The UCSF School of Dentistry: $14,462,569
  • Penn Dental Medicine: $7,044,981
  • The USC Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry: $6,826,721
  • The University of Florida College of Dentistry: $6,651,742
  • The University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine: $6,494,850
  • NYU Dentistry: $6,491,454
  • The Forsyth Institute: $6,339,889
  • UAB Dentistry: $5,942,116
  • The UCLA School of Dentistry: $5,712,070

The NIDCR’s two largest awards to dental schools in 2020, $6.3 million and $3.9 million, supported research into regenerative medicine at the University of Michigan and USC, respectively.

Topics of other large NIH research awards from $1.5 million to $3.5 million a year each included clinical management of postoperative pain, oral health disparities in Appalachia or among young children, and searching for molecular mechanisms and new targets for treatment of chronic pain.

“Included among the 647 awards in 2020 were more than 15 that funded institutional research training programs, four to support specialized research centers, and 90 career-development awards to individual trainees who aim to pursue investigative careers in dental, oral, or craniofacial research,” said Tristram G. Parslow, MD, PhD, associate director at BRIMR.

Yet BRIMR, which was founded by its scientific director, Dr. Robert Roskowski Jr., notes that there are limitations in focusing only on NIH awards.

“NIH is the world’s largest funder of biomedical research, but there are many other important ones, including other federal agencies, philanthropic foundations, individual donors, and universities’ own internal funds. However, reliable, comprehensive, annual data on those latter sources are not generally available,” said Parslow.

“Also, although most research nowadays involves collaborations among multiple investigators or even multiple institutions, the NIH credits only one ‘lead’ investigator and his/her institution with each award, so collaborations are not well reflected in its dataset,” Parslow continued.

“Most importantly, BRIMR’s rankings focus only on research funding, without regard for the many other vital roles of dental schools in the profession and in society,” Parslow said.

“Still, for schools that choose to pursue research, NIH funds are recognized as one of the best available measures of success, in part because the decision to award them is made through an open, transparent, nationwide competition that is judged by expert peer-reviewers from across the country and reflects the nation’s highest goals and priorities in health-related research,” Parslow said.

“So, BRIMR’s rankings are widely cited as a measure of a school’s research vigor, featuring prominently in annual reports, strategic plans, recruitment ads, et cetera,” said Parslow. 

The UCSF School of Dentistry

“UCSF’s mission is to make the world a better place through our singular focus on health: education, patient care, service, and, of course, research,” said Dr. Stuart Gansky, associate dean for research.

“The UCSF School of Dentistry has been ranked first or second in NIH funding among schools of dentistry for nearly three decades. We expect and challenge ourselves to address some of the most pressing health issues through systematic inquiry, investigation, and innovation. UCSF’s environment and culture fosters and impels us to collaboratively tackle research challenges to improve health,” Gansky said.

The school’s faculty includes world-renowned researchers in many areas, Gansky said, particularly cancer biology, craniofacial development, dental materials, health disparities and equity, laser imaging, nociception, salivary glands, Sjögren’s syndrome, and tobacco regulatory science.

“In a nutshell, our focus goes from cells to clinics to communities,” said Gansky, who spotlighted several key researchers and projects:

  • Dr. Daniel Clark and the impact of the aging immune system on periodontal disease
  • Dr. Andrew Jheon and context-dependent roles of Isl1 during mouse incisor renewal
  • Dr. Cristin Kearns and overcoming barriers to implementing policies to reduce sugar consumption for dental caries prevention
  • Dr. Ophir Klein and using human intestinal organoids to model IBD pathogenesis
  • Dr. Caroline Shiboski and Sjögren’s International Collaborative Clinical Alliance Next Generation studies
  • Dr. Torsten Wittman and the wide-field super-resolution spinning disk confocal microscope

Also, the UCSF School of Dentistry recently appointed its first assistant dean for basic science research, Dr. Sarah Knox.

“Her work as an inspired researcher in salivary gland research has been highlighted in UCSF’s festivities celebrating completion of its $6.2 billion development campaign,” Gansky said.

Meanwhile, Klein has multiple concurrent NIH awards in areas including craniofacial development, tissue plasticity, and dental stem cells. He was one of the two recipients of the NIDCR’s inaugural Sustaining Outstanding Achievement in Research or SOAR Awards as well.

And, Dr. Elizabeth Mertz and Dr. Joel White are co-leads on a National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) award to evaluate evidence-based preventive care in Oregon as a way to reduce oral health inequities in childhood caries. They have published their methodologies and will begin disseminating evaluations and findings shortly, Gansky said.

The University of Michigan

While the University of Michigan is honored to be among the leaders in NIH funding, said associate dean for research Dr. Vesa M. Kaartinen, the work does go on. Kaartinen cited the school’s efforts in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine; cancer biology and therapeutics; clinical, population, and educational research; and craniofacial and skeletal biology and disease.

“Research is a vital component of our school’s mission of advancing health through education, service, research, and discovery,” said Kaartinen. “Documenting and promoting basic, translational, clinical, and health services research is a constant focus for us. We want to encourage discoveries and their implementation into practice. This effort can be seen in the range, diversity, and significant output of literature our faculty publish each year.”

Led by Dr. David Kohn, the school considers its Regenerative Medicine Resource Center its flagship research project because of its broad mission and scope, both within the university and in tandem with other schools around the country. In 2020, the center received a five-year, $31.4 million NIDCR grant. The center currently funds 13 interdisciplinary translational projects, helping to move them toward FDA approval for clinical trials.

“We are excited to advance to the next stage of this unique program and pleased that the NIDCR has the confidence in us to invest further in this initiative,” said Kohn, who is a professor in the dental school’s Department of Biologic and Materials Sciences and a professor in biomedical engineering at the university’s College of Engineering.

“It allows us to use the structure and processes we have developed so far to guide the projects to successful translation for patients and/or commercialization. We have nurtured projects related to many areas of critical need in the dental, oral, and craniofacial space and have helped many projects advance along the translational pipeline, which is complex, time-consuming, and costly,” Kohn said.

Another team led by Dr. Yu Leo Lei published the results of its investigation of head and neck tumor development associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV). This research revealed the mechanism that HPV uses to shut down the innate immune system and avoid being targeted by the body’s immune cells. Further, Kaartinen noted Dr. Marco Bottino’s work in periodontal reconstruction and Dr. Isabelle Lombaert’s work in salivary gland regeneration.

NYU Dentistry

“Research is central to NYU College of Dentistry’s mission, and we are pleased to be among the top dental schools in NIH funding,” said Louis Terracio, PhD, vice dean for academic affairs and research at the school.

“NYU College of Dentistry is home to a diverse group of scientists studying oral health and other areas that illustrate the important connection between oral health and overall health,” Terracio said, and the funding reflects that diversity.

In 2020, NYU Dentistry received funding from multiple branches of the NIH including NIDCR, NCI, and NIMHD, as well as the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“Our scientists have a strong record of attracting funding for their work, ranging from clinical research on how to prevent tooth decay in children to basic science research on the biology of bone and tooth enamel. Two exciting and growing areas of research pertain to pain and the microbiome,” said Terracio.

Partly funded by the NIH’s HEAL Initiative to stem the opioid crisis, researchers led by Dr. Brian Schmidt and Nigel Bunnett are investigating alternatives to opioids for treating chronic pain and oral cancer pain. They are developing strategies for pain relief targeting specific genes and using nanoparticles to more precisely deliver therapies.

Also, Dr. Deepax Saxena and Dr. Xin Li have used NIDCR and NCI funding to discover that vaping changes the oral microbiome, potentially putting people at risk for inflammation and infection, Terracio said.

“NIDCR has funded their work on periodontal disease and bone loss, which has led to the development of an oral strip and gel for people with type 2 diabetes,” Terracio said. “Dr. Li also received NIA funding to study the interplay between inflammation, aging, and the microbiome.”

Saxena and Li additionally have received NCI funding to create and test probiotics that alter the gut microbiome to see if they can enhance the efficacy of immunotherapy in treating pancreatic cancer.

The Ostrow School of Dentistry

“It shows an incredible amount of trust for us to be able to get this support, which enables us to carry out innovative research projects that can truly benefit our patients,” said Ostrow’s associate dean of research, Yang Chai, PhD, noting how the school jumped from thirteenth place on NIDCR’s list in 2019 to fourth in 2020.

Grants to Ostrow’s researchers supported FaceBase III, a central repository for craniofacial datasets and tools meant to advance craniofacial science that the school said it has been leading since 2014. Also, funding has supported:

  • A project examining the role of herpesvirus in oral inflammatory diseases such as periodontitis, peri-implantitis, and mucositis
  • A project seeking to better understand the mechanisms whereby immune-compromised individuals develop malignant tumors from Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus and Epstein virus in an effort to one day prevent them
  • A training grant to support PhD students and postdoctoral fellows in their research.

But it was the funding provided for the Center for Dental, Oral and Craniofacial Tissue and Organ Regeneration (C-DOCTOR), whose third phase launched during the pandemic, that helped propel Ostrow to number four on NIDCR’s list, the school said.

Led by USC, C-DOCTOR is a consortium of California academic institutions whose mission is to become a sustainable, comprehensive national center that enables the clinical translation of innovative regenerative therapies to replace dental, oral, and craniofacial tissues or organs lost to congenital disorders, traumatic injuries, disease, and medical procedures.

Chai is a principal investigator at C-DOCTOR, alongside UCSF’s Jeffrey Lotz. Project director Bridget Samuels contributed significantly to the C-DOCTOR grant application and manages the endeavor on a daily basis, a Herculean task that Chai credits for C-DOCTOR’s success.

“C-DOCTOR has been an incredible opportunity for us to work with so many talented people,” said Chai, who also is a professor, the George and MaryLou Boone Chair in Craniofacial Biology, and the director of the Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology (CCMB).

“We have eight different institutions working together to identify these interdisciplinary translation research projects, foster their development, and help them move into an FDA filing. It allows us to really translate innovative discoveries into patient care,” Chai said.

When the pandemic led to shutdowns across California in early 2020, research efforts at CCMB and the Norris Dental Science Center temporarily slowed, the school said, with individual scientists dropping in to make sure equipment was running and animal studies were undisturbed.

In June 2020, USC said it ramped up its research operations to 30% occupancy and eventually to 50%, thanks in part to health and safety guidelines created by an Ostrow task force led by Chai.

At the time, the university had tasked each school with putting together a back-to-work plan that comported with guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control, the County of Los Angeles, and USC.

Ostrow’s task force, which included faculty members from the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy and the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, put together a plan so comprehensive that parts of it were adopted university-wide, Ostrow said.

Today, research efforts are back at 100%, with all necessary COVID-19 mitigation efforts in place, which also includes late-night shift work. During each phase of the reopening, Ostrow’s team was incredibly resilient and adaptable, Chai said.

“Never did people say, ‘Oh, you know what? This is not convenient for me.’ It was always ‘When can I come in? When is it my turn?’” Chai said. “That’s how we were able to publish all these studies and carry out new research projects like the ones funded by C-DOCTOR. That’s been truly remarkable, to see how innovative people have been to come up with ways to deal with restrictions.”

UConn School of Dental Medicine

The $9.4 million that the UConn School of Dental Medicine (SDM) received represents the highest total of NIH funding in the school’s history as well as its highest showing on the Blue Ridge ranking. In 2019, the school ranked 16th and received $5.37 million from the NIH.

Total research funding to the school from all sources has grown significantly over the last several years, UConn said. It averaged $9.58 million per year over the last three years and is on track to reach $11 million for the current fiscal year.

“This highest-ever national ranking provides objective evidence of the growth and success of our research programs,” said Dr. Rajesh Lalla, associate dean for research.

“It demonstrates the excellence of the SDM research community, including our faculty, trainees, and staff who contribute to conducting and supporting research. This growth, success, and excellence enables us to achieve our research missions of generation of new knowledge to benefit humanity and training the next generation of researchers,” said Lalla.

UConn noted the competitive nature of NIH funding, with a success rate for NIH grant applications typically ranging between 10% and 20%. UConn also has almost doubled its number of extramural grant applications from 52 in 2016 to 97 in 2020.

Also, UConn noted that these rankings are based only on funding from the NIH and are not adjusted for school size. The UConn School of Dental Medicine, with one of the smallest class sizes in the country, is ranked alongside larger, research-intensive schools, UConn said.

“The discovery, dissemination, and application of new knowledge is one of the core values of an academic dental center. This achievement is a reflection of the outstanding work of our faculty, students, residents, and staff and a reminder that we remain committed to the pursuit of excellence and innovation,” said Dr. Steven Lepowsky, dean of the School of Dental Medicine.

UConn called research one of the cornerstones of the School of Dental Medicine’s mission. Its research programs span a broad spectrum of basic and clinical areas, UConn continued, such as behavioral sciences, biomedical engineering, skeletal development, and regeneration.

Additional active research areas include periodontal disease, the oral microbiome, oral-systemic connections, temporomandibular joint disease, tooth movement, dental implants, diagnostic imaging, and oral side effects of cancer therapies.

The School of Dental Medicine has had 40 years of continuous NIH funding for graduate-level research training, UConn said, making it nationally known as a training ground for new dental faculty. Research opportunities are available to predoctoral students include its DMD/PhD combined program and summer research program.

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