Global Health Nexus, Winter 2003

International Research Collaborations: Working Together to Find Solutions to Global Health Problems

Yihong Li, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D.
Director of International Research and Associate Professor of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology

When an educational institution creates a new position at the level of director, you can be certain that it represents a priority for the institution’s leadership. So when Dean Alfano invited me last year to come to NYU Dentistry as Director of International Research, I knew that he understood the value inherent in a research enterprise that extends beyond our shores.

We are living at a time when health care is being redefined and dominated by the sharing of information technologies at the global level. It therefore stands to reason that many of the daunting health care challenges affecting people across the globe must be met by a community of scientists acting collaboratively and across geographic boundaries. NYU Dentistry is taking the lead by creating a large network of international dental education and research institutions dedicated to finding solutions to global health problems through the sharing of expertise and resources.

Growing Global Partnerships
A number of indicators point to the increasing globalization of NYU Dentistry’s research program. In the past two years alone, more than a dozen faculty members have been invited to speak in as many countries. Today NYU Dentistry is involved in 39 active, collaborative research projects, of which 24 are international collaborations conducted with partners in France, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Puerto Rico, Sweden, Belgium, Thailand, Switzerland, Dominican Republic, India, China, Haiti, Brazil, Denmark, Norway, Spain, and Costa Rica. Fourteen of the projects are funded by NIH, NSF, Israel-U.S. Binational Agricultural Research Development Foundation, professional associations, industries in the U.S. and overseas, or international not-for-profit foundations. Projects include basic science studies of tissue engineering, HIV-infection, caries research, early diagnosis of oral cancer, dental-facial pain research, and biomaterials.

Dr. Kathleen W. Kinnally, Professor of Basic Sciences, is the director and principal investigator of a U.S.-France Cooperative Research Program that is studying the role of bcl-2 family proteins in protein translocation across mitochrondrial membranes that alter cell death. In addition to students from the U.S. and France, her laboratory hosts a team that includes students from Spain, Russia, India, South Korea, and China. Collectively, they discovered a new mitochondrial channel, the Mitochondrial Apoptosis-Induced Channel, or MAC, a novel channel found only in dead or dying cells, which appears to have great therapeutic potential.

Another collaborative priority is dental caries, the most prevalent chronic disease among children in many developing countries, as well as in the U.S. Since 1990, Dr. Page Caufield, Head of the Division of Diagnostics, Infectious Disease, and Health Promotion, and I have been collaborating with three major dental schools in China on studies focusing on risk assessment for early childhood caries, cariogenic microorganism transmission between mother and child, a new method for caries prediction, and a molecular epidemiological study of S. mutans virulent factor. To date, six postgraduate students and junior faculty members from China have trained with us.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Dr. Ralph Katz, Professor and Chairman; Dr. Stephanie Russell, Assistant Professor; and Dr. Douglas Morse, Assistant Professor, all of the Department of Epidemiology & Health Promotion, are collaborating with colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. They are studying the old-old living in Kungsholmen, an area in central Stockholm with a high proportion of elderly residents. The project, known as the KEOHS (Kungsholmen Elders Oral Health Study), is unique in focusing on people over age 80, an understudied segment of the aged population. The team has described the substantial and ongoing impact of dental caries within the old-old population. Future papers will focus on psychosocial correlates of caries and findings regarding periodontal disease.

In India, we are also pursuing studies relevant to the global HIV epidemic, which has infected 3.5 million Indians, along with oral cancer, which has been and continues to be a major health issue in India. Dr. A. Ross Kerr, Assistant Professor of Oral Medicine and Director of Special Patient Care and Hospital Dentistry, has been invited by Rajiv Gandi University of Health Sciences (RGUHS) to share his expertise in these areas and help to develop a plan for future research collaborations between NYU Dentistry and RGUHS.

On another front, Dr. Dennis P. Tarnow, Professor and Chairman of the Ashman Department of Implant Dentistry, is the principal investigator on a multicenter study being conducted in collaboration with the University of Tel Aviv. The project’s aim is to evaluate new modular implants for immediate placement in patients with full dentures who have limited financial resources. Dr. Tarnow has also collaborated with the University of Brussels on research investigating the presence or absence of the papilla between teeth and implants. In addition, the Ashman Department of Implant Dentistry is conducting research in partnership with internationally based implant companies.

The Path Forward
In addition to continuing to strengthen NYU Dentistry’s international network by reinforcing previously-established affiliations with dental schools, academic institutions, health-related institutions, and foundations in the U.S. and abroad, the Office of International Research seeks to develop long-term student and faculty exchange research training programs with between two and five overseas dental schools over the next five years. Through this program, international faculty and students will come to NYU Dentistry, where their perspectives and talents will add to the strength of our learning environment and they will reap the benefits of immersion in a leading U.S. academic dental center. And NYU Dentistry students and faculty will go abroad to teach and learn, thereby building a truly international dental education community capable of contributing to the solution of oral health problems on a global basis.

Also within the next five years, we will be actively seeking external funding sources to support our international collaborations. Our short-term goal is to double faculty applications for international research and/or supplement existing funded grants. Finally, we will increase communications with faculty, students, and staff in order to broaden their awareness of our international partners and of the opportunities available for collaboration.

For a list of current international collaborative activities led by NYU Dentistry faculty, click here.