Penn Dental Student Takes Top Prize for Aa Research

Dentistry Today


Third-year Penn Dental Medicine student Grace Huang took first place in the junior category of the 2020 American Association for Dental Research (AADR) Hatton Competition with her study, “Cytolethal Distending Toxin (Cdt) Induces Macrophages to Release Pro-Inflammatory Mediators.”

“My project is about Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans (Aa), its cytolethal distending toxin, and this toxin’s pro-inflammatory effects on macrophages,” said Huang. “Previous studies have demonstrated Cdt’s ability to induce macrophages to secrete pro-inflammatory cytokines, and the goal of this study was to determine its effects on other pro-inflammatory mediators, namely arachidonic acid metabolites.”

For a long time, Aa has been considered a putative periodontal pathogen, Huang said. Cdt’s ability to induce macrophages to secrete pro-inflammatory cytokines as well as arachidonic acid metabolites may help to stimulate inflammatory destruction of tissue and contribute to Aa’s role as a keystone pathogen, she said.

The products of this destruction, such as protein fragments and hemin, may then serve to fuel the growth of Aa and other bacteria, Huang added, and, thereby, sustain infection in a chronic inflammatory disease such as periodontitis.

“Basically, this helps us understand how this toxin affects a component of the host’s immune response,” she said.

As a 2019 recipient of a Penn Dental Medicine AADR Travel Award for this project, Huang would have attended this year’s IADR/AADR/CADR annual meeting in March to present her work. With this year’s meeting canceled, the competition’s finalists were asked to submit slide and video presentations and were judged on their submission.

Judging criteria included originality and design of the investigation, quality of the data produced, suitability of the methods of analysis used, scientific value of the work, quality of the oral presentation, and demonstration of mastery of the subject.

Huang, who entered Penn Dental Medicine through the seven-year Bio-Dental Program, has been doing research since her time as an undergraduate. She met her mentor, Bruce Shenker, PhD, professor in the Department of Basic & Translational Sciences, while presenting a poster for the Forsyth Institute at IADR as a Penn undergraduate freshman. She started working in his lab later that year.

“Dr. Shenker has been extremely supportive,” said Huang. “He suggested that I apply to the Research Honors Program before starting my D1 year, and I spent much of the spring semester of my junior year and the following D1 summer performing experiments.”

Huang believes her research experiences have encouraged her to think more critically and seek a deeper understanding of everything she does as a clinician as well.

“Certainly, learning about the pathophysiology of Aa virulence factors is directly applicable to understanding patients’ clinical presentations, but also, many of my patients want to understand the logic behind the procedures and the materials,” said Huang.

“Being able to communicate the rationale or the science behind everything I do during an appointment has allowed me to build more meaningful and trusting relationships with my patients. That’s also what’s so great about Penn’s advocacy for evidence-based care,” she said.

Huang is preparing to apply for specialty programs and hopes to stay involved in research during her postdoctoral study and throughout her career.

“I love to present and teach, so I can definitely see myself being involved in academic dentistry in the future,” she said.

Huang further stresses that her recognition in the Hatton Competition was the result of a team effort.

“This would not have been possible without the guidance of Dr. Shenker and Lisa Pankoski-Walker, the opportunity provided by Penn Dental Medicine Research Day, and the feedback from Dr. Kathleen Boesze-Battaglia, professor and director of the Research Honors Program, about my presentation,” she said.

“I would also be remiss not to thank everybody at the Forsyth Institute for helping me build a strong foundation back when I was in high school and for continuing to support me year after year,” she said.

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