OHSU awarded $3.8 million NIH grant to launch oral health research training program

Anthony Tahayeri, and Drs. Cristiane Franca and Luiz E. Bertassoni, work with a new device called "tooth-on-a-chip" that allows researchers from the Bertassoni Lab to at OHSU observe how teeth interact with reconstruction materials and bacteria.

OHSU School of Dentistry to develop an innovative dual D.M.D./Ph.D. training program.

The OHSU School of Dentistry has received a $3.8 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health in order to recruit, train and mentor the next generation of scientists in oral health.

The funding, from the NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, will support a new comprehensive dentistry research training program that will build on a decade of growth in basic, translational and clinical research conducted by the school’s faculty. In the last ten years, the school has risen to 12th from 41st in NIDCR funding to U.S. dental schools.

Hui Wu, Ph.D., associate dean for research in the School of Dentistry and principal investigator of the grant, joined OHSU in March 2020.

“The award of this grant reflects our strong research portfolio and our ability and potential to produce the next generation of oral health researchers,” said Hui Wu, Ph.D., associate dean for research and principal investigator of the grant. “We were able to compete successfully for the grant because of the science being conducted by our outstanding faculty investigators, our rising research ranking among all dental schools nationally, the outstanding OHSU research environment, and the strong support from the OHSU leadership.”

The grant will fund the Portland Oral Health Research Training (PORT) program, which will fill an important gap among training programs at OHSU and will strengthen cross-school, -institutional research, particularly in microbe-host interactions, biomaterials and tissue engineering, and clinical and translational research in TMJ and pain modulation.

Portland Oral Health Research Training program

“This program will accelerate the transition of highly motivated trainees into independent and productive dental, oral and craniofacial researchers in a collegial, diverse and inclusive academic environment. It will put the OHSU School of Dentistry on the map as a key player in training and mentoring future oral health researchers”, said Jack Ferracane, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Restorative Dentistry, who is co-directing this training program.

Carmem Pfeifer, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Carmem Pfeifer, D.D.S., Ph.D., associate professor of restorative dentistry will direct the D.M.D./Ph.D. dual degree track of PORT.

“This is an incredible opportunity for trainees, but also for PORT faculty members,” said Carmem Pfeifer, D.D.S., Ph.D., associate professor of biomaterials and biomechanics. “The cross-institutional component is crucial to this undertaking — the opportunities for input from investigators in other disciplines can provide new insights, new ways of solving a problem. To conduct breakthrough science and help people — the ultimate goal — it is critical for us to collaborate.”

A layered approach

The PORT program’s focus is on developing an innovative, integrated, interdisciplinary approach to produce a cadre of well-trained, skilled, collaborative basic scientists and clinician-scientists.

The training program will create four research training pathways to accelerate the transition of trainees into independent oral health researchers. The tracks include D.M.D./Ph.D. dual degree; Ph.D.; postdoctoral; and foreign-trained dentists. The D.M.D./Ph.D. dual degree program will build on and formalize a program recently piloted by the school in partnership with the School of Medicine Graduate Studies.

“The prospects of implementing this program are truly exciting,” said Justin Merritt, Ph.D., professor of restorative dentistry and director of the PORT postdoctoral training track. “The school now has a critical mass of well-funded, research-intensive faculty able and eager to implement this training program.”

Merritt is himself one of the well-funded, and nationally recognized, investigators. His work was recognized with a $7.8 million NIH Sustaining Outstanding Achievement in Research (SOAR) award to study the roles of microbial ecology and genetics in the oral microbiome. Another of PORT’s track directors, Carmem Pfeifer, received a $7.4 million SOAR award to continue her innovative research in the development of novel dental biomaterials.

Merritt and Pfeifer are two of PORT’s 46 mentors, about half of whom will come from departments outside the School of Dentistry.  10 faculty members are from Portland State University (PSU), Oregon State University and University of Oregon. The breadth of expertise and the potential for cross-institutional collaboration is, for Wu and the far-reaching PORT community, one of the great benefits of such a training program at OHSU. A project of this magnitude requires collaboration, and transdisciplinary research creates a richer, layered environment for innovation.

Cross-disciplinarity and collaboration

Trainees will have access to mentors and resources at institutional partners PSU, Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, as well as the Pacific Northwest Center for Cryo-EM. The OHSU Hospital, Doernbecher’s Children Hospital and the School of Dentistry clinics provide sites for clinical and translational research, and trainees have access to institutional resources such as trainees’ career development opportunities by OCTRI, mentoring by the Mentor Academy and grant support services.

“PORT will capitalize on the major strengths in our campus-wide and cross-institutional interdisciplinary research initiatives, which increases the likelihood of success,” said Peter G. Barr-Gillespie, Ph.D., executive vice president and chief research officer at OHSU. “One example is high-resolution microscopy. That the dentistry faculty already are actively utilizing cryo-EM facilities and collaborating with other cryo-EM investigators is a living testimony to the OHSU research spirit of cooperation and partnership.” Several faculty mentors at the SoD, including Dr. Kirsten Lampi, Justin Merritt and Hui Wu, have engaged faculty mentors Dr. Steven Reichow from PSU and Dr. Liman Zhang from OHSU School of Medicine, in cryoEM studies that are expanding their research horizons and enabling more productive research and research training experiences.

Cross-disciplinarity and collaboration are built into every aspect of the program. PORT mentors come from areas including microbiology, nanotechnology, cancer biology, orthopedics, biomedical engineering, physiology and chemistry. All mentors will share equipment, expertise and other resources, building another layer of collaboration into the program and setting the stage for new and productive research relationships. The program pairs senior mentors with junior mentors, providing early career scientists with hands-on mentor experience.

PORT directors

Wu will serve as director of the $3.8 million PORT project. In addition to his roles in the School of Dentistry, Wu holds joint appointments in the School of Medicine departments of biomedical engineering and molecular microbiology and immunology, which includes in its structure internal and external advisory boards. Ferracane, a longtime faculty member at the SoD, has been instrumental in recruiting several key scientists to the school and will serve as PORT co-director.

PORT’s track directors, in addition to Pfeifer and Merritt, are Jens Kreth, Ph.D., professor of restorative dentistry (foreign-trained dentist track), and Luiz Eduardo Bertassoni, D.D.S., Ph.D., associate professor of restorative dentistry (predoctoral track). Dr. Bertassoni is a recent recipient of the International Association for Dental Research Centennial Emerging Leaders Award and the 2020 OHSU Silver Family Foundation Faculty Excellence and Innovation Award.

This newly awarded NIH grant matches outstanding mentors from the SoD and across the state with promising trainees in true collaboration to conduct break though scientific research in all areas of oral health for many years to come.