Penn Dental and Engineering Launch Joint Research Center

Dentistry Today


The Penn School of Dental Medicine and the Penn School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have united to form the Center for Innovation & Precision Dentistry (CiPD).

Conceived and brought to fruition by codirectors Michel Koo, DDS, MS, PhD, of Penn Dental Medicine and Kathleen Stebe, PhD, of Penn Engineering, the CiPD is bridging the schools through cutting-edge research and technologies to accelerate the development of new solutions and devices to address unmet needs in oral health, particularly in the areas of dental caries, periodontal disease, and head and neck cancer. The CiPD also will place a high priority on programs to train the next generation of leaders in oral healthcare innovation.

“We have a tremendous global health challenge. Oral diseases and craniofacial disorders affect 3.5 billion people, disproportionately affecting the poor and the medically and physically compromised,” said Koo, professor in the Department of Orthodontics and Divisions of Community Oral Health and Pediatric Dentistry.

“There is an urgent need to find better ways to diagnose, prevent, and treat these conditions, particularly in ways that are affordable and accessible for the most susceptible populations. That is our driving force for putting this center together,” said Koo.

“We have united our schools around this mission,” said Stebe, Richer & Elizabeth Goodwin Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“We have formed a community of scholars to develop and harness new engineering paradigms, to generate new knowledge, and to seek new approaches that are more effective, precise, and affordable to address oral health. More importantly, we will train a new community of scholars to impact this space,” Stebe said.

A connection born of Penn’s interdisciplinary research environment brought Koo and Stebe together more than five years ago, the university said.

Tagbo Niepa, now an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, came to Penn Engineering in 2014 as part of Penn’s Postdoctoral Fellowship for Academic Diversity. His studies of the microbiome led him to reach out to Stebe and Daeyeon Lee, also at Penn Engineering, and to connect them to Koo, initiating collaboration between their labs.

“Tagbo embodies what we are trying to do with the CiPD,” said Stebe. “He had initiative, he identified new tools and important context, and he did good science that may help us understand how to interrupt the disease process and identify new underlying mechanisms that can inspire new therapies.”

Niepa worked on applying microfluidics and engineering to study the oral microbiome and better understand how the interactions between fungi and bacteria could impact dental caries.

“Upon meeting Michel, we became excited about the possibilities or bringing talent from the two schools together,” said Stebe.

A 2018 workshop organized by Koo and Stebe explored the potential for expanding cross-school research.

“We invited researchers from dental medicine and engineering as well as relevant people from the arts and sciences to see if we could find a way to collaborate to advance oral and craniofacial health,” said Koo. “That was the catalyst for the center. After the workshop, we put together a task force, which would become the core members of the CiPD.”

These core members include 26 faculty from across both Penn Dental Medicine and Penn Engineering as well as from the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Arts & Sciences.

“I’m thrilled that Michel and Kate initiated this coalition,” said Penn Dental Medicine Morton Amsterdam Dean Mark S. Wolff. “It is exciting that we have so many partners across Penn that are interested in joining us in trying to make breakthrough science possible.”

“This center exemplifies the best of Penn,” said Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “Combining different perspectives, producing new knowledge, and translating it into real solutions is at the core of our collective mission.”

Three of the CiPD primary partners will play key roles in the center’s funding opportunities to promote research, training, and entrepreneurship focused on translatable technologies to study disease mechanisms and to develop precision diagnostics and affordable therapeutics to promote oral-craniofacial health. They include:

  • Penn Health-Tech Center for Health, Devices and Technology, which will co-sponsor grants to support inter-school collaborations to both advance fundamental knowledge and accelerate the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches
  • Penn Institute for Biomedical Informatics (IBI), which has established the CiPD-IBI Fellowship for junior investigators to promote the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning in dentistry
  • Penn Center for Innovation, which will co-sponsor a school-wide competition with students, residents, and graduate/postdoctoral fellows to fellows to pitch new ideas and solutions to address current clinical problems
  • Penn Dental Medicine’s Center for Clinical and Translational Research, which will support the CiPD when research is ready to be tested in a clinical setting

The CiPD has committed more than $100,000 in matching funds to advance these initiatives. The CiPD also is affiliated with CT3N: Center for Targeted Therapeutics and Translational Nanomedicine; ITMAT: Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics; and PICS: Penn Institute for Computational Science.

Koo and Stebe both stress that the training programs they are developing at the CiPD will be fundamental to the transformational impact they hope to achieve.

“We want to create a new and diverse cross-trained workforce of dentists, engineers, and data scientists to advance oral and craniofacial research and healthcare innovation,” said Koo.

“We see this as a career-defining program where our cohort of talent leaves aware of the unmet clinical needs and regulatory hurdles and knows how to identify research areas in this interface and garner research funding to launch into academics or pursue industry/entrepreneurship opportunities,” Koo said.

A grant is pending with the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) that would fund the training program, which encompasses co-mentorships from both Penn Dental and Penn Engineering faculty as well as access to shared resources, facilities, and research centers at the schools and across the university.

“One of the most important ways we are going to make an impact is to train new talent in this space, incubated between the disciplines to adopt and adapt the rapidly emerging technologies and approaches to find new solutions to study, diagnose, and prevent or treat oral diseases,” said Stebe.

The center’s work is already well underway, the university said. For example, Alena Orlenko, who is the first CiPD-IBI Fellow, recently published a study of using machine learning to better understand dental carries. Other studies include:

  • Microrobots that clear dental plaque from tooth surfaces and remove biofilms from root canals
  • Customized N95 respirators that use 3D face scans for improved function and comfort
  • Artificial intelligence to develop more effective antimicrobials
  • Nanocarriers for drug delivery to precisely target bone diseases
  • Organ-on-chip technology that mimics complex and dynamic structures to study oral diseases and new therapies

“We are already generating high-impact science and building connections throughout the university, the profession, and industry. We want to challenge the status quo and generate the knowledge and new solutions that will benefit the society and improve oral healthcare,” said Koo. “We are just getting started, and we have the ambition in our heart for making a real impact for those who need the most.”

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