Research News 2020

2018 research news
Dr. Sukirth Ganesan

The Osteology Foundation Awarded Dr. Ganesan CHF 30K Grant

Aug 07, 2020

Dr. Sukirth Ganesan, assistant professor in the Department of Periodontics, was awarded a CHF 30K grant for his project, “Spatial Co-Localization of Immune And Microbial Cell Populations In Peri-Implantitis Lesions: A Quantitative And Architectural Analysis.”

At least 100 million people have dental implants, and approximately 20% of patients with implants develop peri-implantitis. As the number of dental implants placed increase, the risks and adverse outcomes associated with peri-implantitis grows.

Although research has demonstrated the differences between periodontitis and peri-implantitis, the specific characteristics of the interaction between the microbiome and a person’s immune response in peri-implantitis have not been thoroughly investigated. Doing so is crucial for identifying preventive strategies and treatments for peri-implantitis.

Dr. Ganesan and his team conducted a pilot study to begin looking at the genetic differences between healthy and diseased peri-implant tissues. This project builds on that work with the overall purpose of understanding how various microbial species and immune responses are related to one another in peri-implant lesions, and thereby better understand how peri-implantitis progresses and develops as a disease.

This pilot research project will provide key information about the relationship between microbial species and immune responses, complete with a mapping and quantification of these interactions using transcriptomics, novel fluorescent microscopy techniques.

Dr. Ganesan’s research team includes co-investigators:  Dr. Pablo Galindo-Moreno from University of Granada, Dr. Gustavo Avila-Ortiz and Dr. Jin Xie from UI College of Dentistry, Dr. Chantal Allamargot and Randy Nessler from UI Microscopy Core, and Dr. Jacqueline Mays from the NIH, who serves as a consultant.

Dr. Kyungsup Shin

UI Researcher Receives Grant for Innovative Cartilage Regeneration Project

Jul 10, 2020

The American Association of Orthodontists Foundation awarded Dr. Kyungsup Shin, assistant professor in the Department of Orthodontics and director of Clinical Research, and his team a $30,000 grant for their research on using extracellular vesicles to regenerate condylar fibrocartilage in the jaw (temporomandibular joint, TMJ). This research lays the groundwork for new non-invasive treatments for degenerative temporomandibular joint disorders.

These kinds of degenerative joint disorders are some of the most challenging problems facing clinicians as their patients experience a great deal of pain and, in some cases, are unable to effectively chew. Approximately 4 out of 5 people with the disorder have significant signs of joint disease and treatments costing $4 billion per year in the US.

Rather than using surgical means to treat the condition, Dr. Shin and his team are developing less invasive tissue engineering strategies as treatments of degenerative TMJ disorders.

This research is promising, and it uses endogenous progenitor cells at the damaged site to replace and repair damaged tissue. Progenitor cells function similarly to stem cells and can grow into a variety of different tissue types. One of the main complications for this research is getting these cells to multiply and develop into the right kind of cells at the damaged site.

Dr. Shin’s team is addressing this challenge by using extracellular vesicles to effectively direct and manage the progenitor cells. Preliminary data has been promising, and this particular project has two specific aims:

1. To characterize extracellular vesicles produced by bone-marrow-derived-stem cells. These cells vary a great deal, and it will be helpful to know their specific characteristics.

2. To determine how effective these vesicles are at directing chondrogenic progenitor cells in vitro and improving fibrocartilage regeneration ex vivo.   

Dr. Shin’s coinvestigators are: Dr. Xian Jin Xie, Dr. Dong Rim Seol, and Dr. James A. Martin.

Dr. David Drake

UI Plays Leading Role in AADR Project to Mentor and Develop a Diverse Group of Oral Health Researchers  

Jun 26, 2020

The American Association for Dental Research received a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The grant funds are being used develop, mentor, and support a diverse and inclusive network of oral health and dental researchers. Dr. David Drake, professor of microbiology at Iowa Institute for Oral Health Research, is one of the co-principal investigators and Director of the Midwest Hub for the project.  The other two co-Principal Investigators are the CEO of the AADR and a faculty member at the University of Connecticut.

The project is called AADR MIND the Future (The AADR Mentoring an Inclusive Network for a Diverse Workforce of the Future). Each year, 10 investigators from diverse backgrounds will participate in an educational program intended to offer experiences and opportunities that will aid them in establishing independent research careers dedicated to improving dental, oral, and craniofacial health.

Dr. David Drake, who takes a keen interest in mentoring early-career researchers, really appreciates the opportunity to take a lead role in the initiative.

He said, “As a member of the National Mentoring Network (NRMN) and a grant-writing coach trained through the Big Ten Alliance, I am honored and excited to be part of this exciting new national program. I am dedicated here on our campus and nationally in helping underrepresented minorities in the biological sciences excel in the academy.”

Dr. Drake is also Director of the University of Iowa site and will work closely with Dr. Steve Levy in implementing aspects of the national program here at the University of Iowa.

Applications are being received now for MIND the Future. and additional information is available on the AADR website

Dr. John Warren

The College of Dentistry Receives $2.7+ Million Grant to Establish Advanced Combined Training Programs 

Jun 26, 2020

A team of faculty members, led by Drs. John Warren, Howard Cowen, and Kecia Leary, have received a grant from US Department of Health and Human Services to establish an advanced combined training program in Dental Public Health and either Geriatric and Special Needs Dentistry or Pediatric Dentistry.

Each year, 1-2 new trainees are expected to begin the combined programs. These trainees will earn a MS degree in Dental Public Health and a clinical certificate in either Geriatric and Special Needs Dentistry or Pediatric Dentistry. As part of the training process, the trainees will collaborate and have student experiences in community health centers with federal funding to serve rural and underserved communities in Iowa.  The grant also includes funding for a pilot teledentistry project that will facilitate patient referrals form community health centers to the College of Dentistry.

Learn more about how to apply to the combined program on the College of Dentistry website.

Drs. Xi Chen, Jennifer Hartshorn, Michelle Krupp, Steven Levy, and Julie Reynolds will also be contributing to this new training program.

Hongli Sun

UI Dental Researcher Receives NIH Grant for Innovative Nanomaterial-based Drug-Delivery System

Jun 26, 2020

The National Institutes of Health awarded Dr. Hongli Sun, associate professor in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and the Iowa Institute for Oral Health Research, a five-year grant totaling over $1.7 million for his research project, “Rejuvenating aged bone regeneration by innovative nanomaterials-mediated drug delivery.”

Typically, when bones or joints are seriously damaged, such as in multiple or complex fractures or in bones that are seriously damaged by age, disease, infection, and/or injury, the most common treatment is a bone-graft using one’s own bone material. A less invasive and potentially more effective approach, especially for older populations, is to harness a body’s own bodily repair processes to quickly and efficiently repair and regenerate bone, even for older adults with significant bone damage. Emerging research uses deferoxamine, a drug that treats iron poisoning, to activate the hypoxia-induced factor-1α, which in turn promotes angiogenesis and bone regeneration.

The biggest obstacle to this line of research has been safety concerns and complicating factors, such as chronic inflammation, which are common among older individuals.

To reduce inflammation and promote endogenous bone regeneration, Dr. Sun’s team uses a small molecule, phenamil, and to address the safety concerns, the research team has engineered a novel nanomaterial scaffold that mimics bone matrix and delivers deferoxamine and phenamil locally and effectively. These two innovations could pave the way for treatments to rejuvenate and repair significant bone damage, even for older adults.

Dr. Sun’s team has three specific aims:

1. Develop novel biomimetic electrospun 3D nanofibrous scaffolds with interconnected and hierarchically-structured pores for bone tissue engineering.

2. Sustain release of deferoxamine and phenamil from 3D nanofibrous scaffold to modulate both angiogenesis and osteogenesis in aged cells in vitro.

3. Determine the effectiveness of local dual-release of deferoxamine and phenamil from a 3D NF scaffold for repairing critical-sized cranial bone defects in aged mice. 

Dr. Sun’s research team includes Dr. Brad Amendt, Dr. Tae-Hong Lim (Biomedical Engineering), Dr. Kyle Stein, Dr. Jin Xie, and Dr. Hao Fong (South Dakota School of Mines and Technology).

Dr. Shankar Rengasamy Venugopalan

Dr. Rengasamy Venugopalan, Dr. Amendt, and Their Team Receive Grant for Genetic Research into Craniofacial Microsomia

Jun 05, 2020

Facial asymmetry is a persistent, major clinical problem for orthodontists. Craniofacial microsomia is the second most common congenital craniofacial malformation and it results in significant facial asymmetry due to defects in and around the ear, jaw, and face. Several genes have been identified as candidates that may be associated with craniofacial microsomia—some of these genes are in the coding region but others were non-coding genes. This discovery indicates that there are non-coding mechanisms that are at least partly contributing to the developmental defects found in craniofacial microsomia.

Dr. Shankar Rengasamy Venugopalan’s and Dr. Brad Amendt’s team is investigating whether small non-coding RNAs called miRNAs are responsible for repressing gene expression in the 3’-UTR region, which may play a role in the structural genetic defects resulting from craniofacial microsomia. The study could lead to a therapeutic intervention using small molecules to improve treatment outcomes for craniofacial microsomia.

Dr. Rengasamy Venugopalan, Dr. Amendt, and their team received the Biomedical Research Award, a one-year $30,000 grant, from the American Association of Orthodontists Foundation for this project, and it is entitled, “Analyses of microRNA Target-site Polymorphisms in Craniofacial Microsomia."

Dr. Rengasamy Venugopalan and Dr. Amendt are principal and co-principal investigators of the study. Their research team includes co-investigators, Dr. Huojun Cao, Dr. Pedro A. Sanchez, Dr. Emily Farrow, and Dr. Veerasathpurush Allareddy. 

Dr. Isabelle Denry

Dr. Denry Earns Two-Year $400K+ Grant from the NIH

May 15, 2020

Dr. Isabelle Denry’s innovative research continues to pay off. The NIH awarded Dr. Denry a 2-year grant for $424,875 to continue developing a self-assembled gallo-silicate microsphere material with unique blood-clotting properties. The title of the project is, “Novel Honeycomb Gallo-silicate Microspheres for Rapid Hemostasis of Oral and Maxillofacial Wounds.”

Presently, there are a number of emergency blood-clotting agents, but they all have significant drawbacks. Some produce strong exothermic reactions that cause serious burns, others are made from shellfish and can cause allergic reactions, still others leave behind residue that can be harmful.

Dr. Denry, however, invented an effective blood-clotting agent that has none of these drawbacks, and as a bonus, it also has antimicrobial properties to help prevent infections. Although initially designed to stop oral bleeding, this discovery is so revolutionary that it could eventually be used in triage and emergency situations, as a replacement for current blood-clotting agents. Dr. Denry also received the 2020 IADR Innovation in Oral Care Award in support of this line of research.  

The specific aims for Dr. Denry’s project are:

Aim 1: To synthesize and characterize honeycomb silicate microsphere frameworks (SMFs), testhemostatic properties and investigate mechanisms by which clotting is triggered.

Aim 2: To synthesize gallium-doped SMFs and characterize their hemostatic & antimicrobial activities.

Dr. Amanda Haes (Department of Chemistry) is a co-investigator on the project.

Dr. Sukirth Ganesan

Dr. Sukirth Ganesan Receives Seed Grant from American Cancer Society

May 08, 2020

The American Cancer Society awarded Dr. Sukirth Ganesan, assistant professor in the Department of Periodontics, a Young Investigator Seed Grant (Institutional Research Grant) of $30,000 for his proposal, “Mapping the Microbial-Immune Axis in Oral Chronic Graft-versus-Host-Disease.”

The long term goal of Dr. Ganesan's research is to understand the mechanisms underlying the host-bacterial interactions in the oral environment using complementary integrated-omics approaches. This proposal is aimed to determine the mechanism of oral cGVHD pathogenesis by identifying the key microbial molecules/metabolites at the onset of cGVHD and determine the interaction pattern of those molecules with our body’s immune response.

The project involves collaborative efforts wih the NIDCR/NIH’s Oral Immunobiology Unit, the Department of Pathology, the FOEDRC Metabolomics Core at the College of Medicine, and the Division of Biostatistics and Computation Biology at the College of Dentistry at the University of Iowa. The team members involved in this research project include, Dr.Jacqueline Mays (NIDCR/NIH), Drs. Ashu Mangalam, Margarida Silvermann, and Eric Taylor (UI-COM), Drs. David Drake and Xian Jin Xie (UI-COD).

Karin Weber-Gasparoni and her daughter, Nathalia

Dr. Weber-Gasparoni Receives 2-year $600K+ NIH Grant to Develop a Clinical Trial Studying How a Motivational Theory Can Improve Dental Public Health in Early Childhood

Apr 24, 2020

Pediatric dentistry is Dr. Karin Weber-Gasparoni’s profession, but it is also deeply personal for her.

As a young dentist and teacher in Brazil, Weber-Gasparoni’s academic interests focused on early childhood oral health and preventive care. Weber-Gasparoni’s daughter, Nathália, was born with Smith-Magenis syndrome, which is a developmental disorder that affects various parts of the body. For Nathália, it resulted in significant acid reflux and early childhood cavities. As a low-income, single mother of a child with special health care needs, Weber-Gasparoni was taken aback by the lack of resources and support available for children with special needs. This experience sparked her interest in pediatric dentistry and a passion for early preventive dental care, particularly for underprivileged children.

Weber-Gasparoni’s research draws from this passion and is closely tied to her clinical work.

Professionally, Weber-Gasparoni’s mentor in Brazil used and promoted a model for pediatric dentistry that had been developed at Iowa—namely that children should be seen by a dentist before they turn one-year old. The American Association of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends that infants should visit a dentist as soon as their first tooth erupts and no later than 12 months of age.

“Preventive care, particularly for infants, is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve oral health,” Weber-Gasparoni said.

Low-income children are an underserved group in dentistry. For this reason, Weber-Gasparoni and Dr. Michael Kanellis founded an Infant Oral Health Program in collaboration with the local Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) through the Johnson County Department of Public Health designed to provide care to this group. In the program, University of Iowa dental students, pediatric dentistry residents, and pediatric medicine residents provide free dental screenings, preventive care, and education to low-income children up to age three every Thursday.

“Health professionals have an obligation to provide low-income and underprivileged patients the same access to care as more affluent patients,” Weber-Gasparoni said.

Weber-Gasparoni’s research team has used this program to study how it can improve oral health for children. Although the AAPD recommends that infants see a dentist before the age of one, only a small percentage of infants see a dentist by this time. On the other hand, most infants visit their pediatrician several times during their first year of life. As a result, training pediatricians to provide basic infant oral screenings and education, and to identify risks for childhood cavities is a promising avenue for improving preventive oral health care in early childhood.

Survey results from pediatricians who had an oral health rotation at the Infant Oral Health Program showed that they demonstrated more knowledge about early childhood cavity prevention, including how to brush and the proper amount of fluoride toothpaste to use, and were more likely to examine the teeth of young children during pediatric exams than were pediatricians who graduated before this rotation was added.

“Medical professionals need to be trained in early childhood oral health, and it really makes a difference when they are,” said Weber-Gasparoni.

One of the major challenges for pediatric dentists and pediatricians, like those trained during these rotations, is that caregivers of young children know what they should do, but they often aren’t motivated to do it.

Weber-Gasparoni has been working to meet this challenge.

“It is essential that we understand the psychology of motivation and for us to use educational strategies that actually change behaviors,” Weber-Gasparoni explained.

Weber-Gasparoni has been using a particular psychological theory of motivation, self-determination theory, which has been particularly effective at changing behavioral patterns related to preventing early childhood cavity prevention. This psychological theory relies on having the caregiver personally and autonomously buying-in to what should be done by having a health care professional develop a personal relationship with the caregiver that improves their confidence and competence in carrying out a given task. These interventions and preventive strategies begin even before a child is born during pregnancy.

Preliminary studies have been promising showing that self-determination theory is effective at helping mothers of low-income WIC infants and toddlers reduce the risk of getting cavities. Drawing from these results, Weber-Gasparoni and her team are proposing a 7-year clinical trial to assess the impact that the theory has on preventing cavities in those critical first three years of a child’s life. The first phase, the planning portion, of the clinical trial has been funded by the National Institutes of Health for over $600,000. This is the first step in conducting a full clinical trial regarding this intervention, the ultimate goal of which is to improve the oral health for those who need it most.

“If we can keep a child cavity-free in the first three years of life, it will increase the opportunity for this child to enjoy better oral health for their lifetime,” Weber-Gasparoni exclaimed.

Weber-Gasparoni’s coinvestigators for the grant include Dr. Deborah Dawson, Dr. David Drake, Dr. Steven Levy, and Dr. Teresa Marshall. Dr. Jin Xie is a consultant for the grant as well. 

Dr. Jennifer Hartshorn and Dr. Julie Reynolds

Dr. Julie Reynolds and Dr. Jennifer Hartshorn Awarded $200K Grant to Plan, Implement, and Evaulate the Success of Teledentistry Program

Mar 13, 2020

Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation awarded Dr. Julie Reynolds, assistant professor in the Department of Preventive and Community Dentistry, and Dr. Jennifer Hartshorn, clinical associate professor in the Department of Preventive and Community Dentistry,  a $200K grant for their two-year project, “Improving access to dental care in nursing facilities via teledentistry: A demonstration project.” Dr. Reynolds and Dr. Hartshorn are leading the project, and Dr. Steve Levy, the Wright-Bush-Shreves Endowed Professor of Research in the Department of Preventive and Community Dentistry, and Tessa Heeren, research associate in the Health Policy Research Program with the Public Policy Center are also on the research team. The goals of this project are to (1) work with the Southeastern Iowa Community Health Center dental clinic in Keokuk and two nearby nursing facilities to plan and implement a teledentistry program for older adults in nursing facilities, and (2) examine measures of effectiveness of this program including access to care, clinical outcomes, and patient/provider satisfaction.

Dr. Olayinka Adekugbe

Dr. Olayinka Adekugbe Awarded $24,000 Grant to Improve Preventive Oral Health Services for African Refugees

Mar 06, 2020

The Delta Dental Foundation of Iowa awarded Olayinka Adekugbe, Dental Public Health resident and Master’s student, a $ 24,000 grant for her project, “Oral Health Campaign for African Immigrant/Refugees.” This project aims to increase access and use of preventive oral health services among African Refugees in Iowa City.

Studies have shown that immigrants with a moderate network size were more aware of the importance of dental care and were more likely to use dental services. Conversely, a poor social network, that is, a network with limited knowledge of dental health, was inversely related to negative oral health outcome.

Dr. Adekugbe aims to improve oral health outcomes for this population group by increasing their knowledge and skill in navigating the complexities of oral health service, for example, the healthy behaviors requirement of Iowa’s state-sponsored health insurance, the Dental Wellness Plan.

The proposed intervention will use social cognitive theory (SCT) to create a social network that will raise awareness and improve this population’s use of oral health services. SCT describes a dynamic, ongoing process in which personal factors, environmental factors, and human behaviors exert influence upon each other. According to SCT, three main factors affect the likelihood that a person will change health behavior: (1) self-efficacy, (2) goals, and (3) outcome expectancies. If individuals have a sense of personal agency or self-efficacy, they can change behaviors even when faced with obstacles. If they do not feel that they can exercise control over their health, they are not motivated to act or to persist through challenges.

The ultimate aim of the project is for African Refugees aged 1-65 living in Iowa City to use preventive dental services more frequently and effectively. The project will use a peer-to-peer educational campaign to improve access to and use of preventative dental services amongst African refugee populations.

Dr. Azeez Butali

Dr. Azeez Butali Receives 5-year Grant for Over $3.2M

Feb 28, 2020

The National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research awarded Dr. Azeez Butali, associate professor in the Department of Oral Pathology, Radiology, and Medicine, a 5-year grant exceeding $3.2M. Dr. Butali’s project, “Refining the Genetic and Genomic Architecture of Non-syndromic Orofacial Clefts,” aims to identify new genetic variants of cleft lip (with or without cleft palate—CL/P) in African populations with the goal of providing new insight into the pathogenesis of CL/P.

This project is part of Dr. Butali’s long-term goal of identifying the genetic, genomic, and environmental factors in the etiology of orofacial clefts in families of African descent. Although genetic studies of cleft lip among family of Northern European and Asian descent have revealed several genetic factors at work in cleft lip, there have been few studies on families of African descent.

This project builds on earlier research from the Butali team, which identified several genetics factors of cleft lip in African populations, and seeks to identify more.

The project has three specific aims:

To replicate and conduct a meta-analysis of variants found in genome-wide association studies for CL/P and cleft palate only (CPO).

To perform analyses of completed whole genome sequencing (WGS) of 150 CL/P case-parent triads from Africa, and to identify functional variants that are rare and contribute to bilateral cleft lip and plate in African populations.

To conduct mechanistic analyses of genome-wide significant SNPs from the Butali’s lab’s African genome-wide association study.

Dr. Butali’s research team includes:

  1. Robert Cornell- University of Iowa co-I
  2. Hunjun Cao - University of Iowa co- I
  3. Adebowale Adeyemo - NHGRI co-I
  4. Wasiu Lanre Adeyemo- University of Lagos, Nigeria  co-I
  5. Lord J.J Gowans - Kwame Nkurumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana co-I
  6. Mekonen Abebe Eshete - Addis Ababa University  co-I
  7. Margaret Taub - John Hopkins University  co-I
  8. Rita Shinag and Jennifer Rhodes- Virginia Commonwealth University  co-I 
  9. Jeff Murray - Consultant

Dr. Isabelle Denry: World-Renowned Researcher Receives Prestigious Award for Her Cutting-Edge Blood-Clotting Research

Feb 28, 2020

Dr. Isabelle Denry, professor in the Department of Prosthodontics, is an internationally-recognized expert whose research focuses on developing, characterizing, and understanding the relationship between structure and clinical performance of ceramics for use in dentistry.

Isabelle Denry receives 2019 Distinguished Scientist AwardAt the 2019 International Association for Dental Research (IADR) annual meeting in Vancouver, she received the Wilmer Souder Award—an IADR Distinguished Scientist Award—recognizing excellence in the field of Dental Materials.

“Looking at the list of past award recipients, I felt very honored to receive this award and to have my name added to this list of highly regarded researchers,“ Dr. Denry stated.

So, what sets Dr. Denry apart from others?

As their careers develop, many scientists slowly part from the research program of their mentor as they develop their own research profile through a series of incremental improvements within that research general direction.

Dr. Denry’s methodology, however, is more exploratory and entrepreneurial. She’s always looking for new angles and possibilities, potential applications of novel materials, as well as innovative experimental approaches.

“I like to think outside the box and I am excited to try high risk/high reward experiments. Often the results are inconclusive; but scientists need to explore new possibilities—I was trained to be rigorous but audacious at the University of Paris and that’s really what science is about,” Dr. Denry said.

Dr. Denry in her labPerhaps the best example of Dr. Denry’s exploratory approach is when she discovered a self-assembled gallo-silicate microsphere material with some unique properties. Presently, there are a number of emergency blood clotting agents, but they all have significant drawbacks. Some produce strong exothermic reactions that cause serious burns, others are made from shellfish and can cause allergic reactions, still others leave behind residue that can be harmful.

Dr. Denry, however, invented an effective blood clotting agent that has none of these drawbacks. Although initially designed to stop oral bleeding, this discovery has been so revolutionary that several companies are interested in developing it for triage and emergency situations, as a replacement for current blood clotting agents. Because of these possible applications, the University of Iowa has applied for international and US patents on the technology, and the International Association for Dental Research awarded Dr. Denry a 2020 IADR Innovation in Oral Care Award for $50,000.

Since 2011, Iowa has been privileged to have Dr. Denry’s unique scientific expertise, and the results of her work could be saving lives for years to come. 

Susan McKernan

Using Dental Public Health Research to Improve Access to Care in Iowa

Feb 14, 2020

Although Dr. Susan McKernan was awarded a $300,000, two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health in June, the seeds for the award were planted and cultivated much earlier.

The seed: As a dental student at the University of Florida, McKernan had an extramural rotation in southern Florida providing dental care to seasonal farm workers without insurance.

“There were 4-year olds that needed every single tooth extracted,” McKernan said. “And every night, I went home and cried.”

The experience opened McKernan’s eyes to the great impact that preventive dental care can have. Fast-forward a few years as she was in private practice in well-to-do area of Tampa, and she realized that no matter how much she did in this practice, it would never have the impact that a rigorous preventive oral health care routine would have for those who lack access to these services.

The growth: That’s when McKernan decided it was time for her to address larger issues in access to care as she earned an M.S. and a Ph.D. specializing in dental public health at the University of Iowa.

“I knew I needed to go to Iowa,” McKernan explained, “since it was the best dental public health program in the country.”

As a student, McKernan was an active participant in the college’s research training grant, and it helped her become the researcher she is today—exposing her to high-quality research projects and strategies, improving her critical thinking skills, and teaching her to conduct her own research projects.

The fruit: McKernan is now assistant professor in Iowa’s Department of Preventive and Community Dentistry and a researcher in the Health Policy Research Program as part of the Public Policy Center at Iowa.

McKernan’s current project is a preliminary study with the long-term goal of improving care and access to preventive care for underserved populations.

McKernan and her colleagues at the Public Policy Center, including Pete Damiano, Ray Kuthy, and Julie Reynolds, among others, have collaborated to develop a holistic picture of oral health care preventive service needs in Iowa. They have found a number of structural and public-policy barriers that limit access to routine preventive care, particularly for children. Cost is the number one barrier to dental care and this is particularly challenging in Iowa with recent changes to Iowa’s state-provided dental insurance plans that have made it unclear who and what is covered.

Lack of transportation and not being able to find a dentist, particularly one that will accept state-provided dental insurance, are also barriers for underserved populations.

“Transportation is obviously challenging in some rural areas where certain towns don’t have a dentist or public transportation for getting to a town with a dentist,” McKernan explained.

But transportation is also a barrier for low-income families in urban areas with public transportation. Work and bus schedules may turn an hour long appointment into a task that takes the whole day.

In addition to these structural barriers, McKernan and her colleagues are exploring how clinical treatment patterns and the use of preventive care vary widely among dentists. For example, some dentists rarely follow American Dental Association (ADA) recommendations regarding the use of sealants and fluoride, which are known to significantly reduce tooth decay, and this can be especially problematic for low-income children and patients with special health care needs.

“There could be a number of factors that account for these differences in care between affluent and low-income populations—for example, insurance payment structures do not incentivize preventive care and it may be common in certain regions for the community of dentists to ignore or reject ADA recommendations,” McKernan said.

These barriers, however, are not insurmountable.

“We need to know which levers make it more likely that a dentist will follow preventive recommendations on the use of fluoride and sealants, and successfully implement those recommendations with buy-in from the entire clinic—from the dentist to the front-desk clerk,” McKernan said.

For McKernan, whether it’s helping dentists successfully implement the best preventive practices or reducing barriers in access to care, the fruit that she hopes to see is a lasting, widespread improvement in preventive dental care among underserved populations.

Dr. Eric Van Otterloo

Dr. Eric Van Otterloo Receives Three-Year NIH Grant for Over $700K

Jan 10, 2020

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research awarded Dr. Eric Van Otterloo a three-year grant for his project, “Understanding the interaction of Memo1 and Runx2 in craniodental mineralization.” The grant includes funding for three years with over $700K total.

Dr. Van Otterloo joined the College of Dentistry as an assistant professor in the Department of Periodontics and the Iowa Institute for Oral Health Research this past fall. The award is part of a larger project including a mentored- and independent-phase. This grant is for the independent phase (R00) of the project, building on the work established during the mentored-phase of the award (K99).

The overall goal of the project is to advance understanding of cranial and dental development and the underlying gene regulatory networks (GRNs) governing their development. During the earlier K99 award, Dr. Van Otterloo focused on the role of MEMO1—an elusive oncogene—in both cranial and dental mineralization, its integration into larger developmental GRNs, and how these networks can be used for therapeutic purposes.

Dr. Van Otterloo is further developing this work, and will test his hypothesis that Memo1 and Runx2 are central components of a GRN responsible for mineralization of craniodental tissues. He will be testing this hypothesis using cranial endochondral bone and dental enamel models with the following aims:

 Aim 1: Determine intersection of MEMO1, RUNX2, and their interactors, in cranial mineralization GRNs.

Aim 2: Identify MEMO1’s role and genetic interaction with additional factors during cranial bone mineralization.

Aim 3: MEMO1 and RUNX2’s role within the ameloblast lineage during enamel mineralization.