Global Health Nexus, Winter 2003

The NYU Dentistry–UPRSD Connection

By Ralph V. Katz, D.M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.,
Professor and Chairman of the Department of Epidemiology and Health Promotion

“Unique” may be an overused word, but it’s the only one that accurately describes the NYU College of Dentistry NYU Dentistry-University of Puerto Rico School of Dentistry (UPRSD) partnership. Not only do these two schools share a commitment to improving the oral health of Puerto Ricans, both within the Commonwealth and in New York City; they are also partners on a pre- and postdoctoral student-exchange program and on three major NIH grants totaling over $10 million in awards that will extend into 2008. But the ultimate expression of partnership is a shared, jointly-appointed faculty member, Dr. Walter Psoter, who spends the entire fall semester at NYU Dentistry in New York City and the entire spring semester at UPRSD in San Juan.

An indispensable condition for the establishment and maintenance of a strong NYU Dentistry-UPRSD connection is the fluid, back-and-forth migration patterns between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland. Equally important is the “people” factor. As the principal investigator for the NYU Minority Oral Health Research Center (MOHRC), one of four Regional Research Centers for Minority Oral Health funded by a major NIH/NIDCR grant that ran from 1992 to 2000, Dr. Racquel Z. LeGeros, Professor of Biomaterials and Biomimetics and the Linkow Professor of Implant Dentistry, forged strong ties with UPRSD. Under her guidance, Dr. Gustavo Cruz, who received his dental degree from UPR, and Dr. Diana Galvis, who received training in both dental assisting and dental hygiene at UPR, strengthened their research skills at the MOHRC and have gone on to become full-time faculty members at NYU Dentistry.

Dr. Cruz, who became an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology & Health Promotion and Director of Public Health and Health Promotion in 2000, is currently the co-principal investigator on two NIDCR grants on oral cancer, one a major clinical trial on smoking cessation, and the other a project to plan and implement a New York State oral cancer prevention program. For the past three years he has also conducted a study of the oral health status of elderly Puerto Ricans, a collaborative effort among NYU Dentistry, UPRSD, and UPR’s School of Public Health with funding from both the NIH and the Puerto Rican government. Dr. Galvis, NYU Dentistry Class of 2002, was recently appointed an Instructor in Cariology and Operative Dentistry and the Director of Dental Anatomy for the first-year curriculum.

Another offshoot of the MOHRC was a collaborative NYU Dentistry-UPRSD student summer research program during which several UPR dental students spent summers at NYU Dentistry working on MOHRC projects. By the summer of 2000, as part of the Tuskegee Legacy Project, which I co-direct with Dr. Cristina Claudio of UPRSD, four UPR dental students and two NYU dental students were studying the effects of acculturation on the willingness of Puerto Ricans to participate as research subjects in biomedical studies.

The project continued the following year in the NYU Dentistry laboratories of Dr. Kathleen Kinnally, Professor of Basic Sciences, and Dr. Peter Sacks, Associate Professor of Basic Sciences, and it appears that it will be ongoing.

Now, we come to Dr. Psoter, who had been serving four-month rotations at UPRSD as part of the NYU Oral Epidemiology Postdoctoral Training Program (an NIH/NIDCR Long-term Research Training Grant, now in its 11th year producing dentists with Ph.D. degrees in epidemiology).

An early indication of the success of his joint appointment is Dr. Psoter’s role as co-investigator and writer on a three-year, $1 million NIH/NIDCR Research Infrastructure grant at UPRSD, in which NYU Dentistry is a major partner. Another indication is the fact that, under the mentorship of the grant’s principal investigator, Dr. Augusto Elias-Bonito, Director of Research at UPRSD, and Dr. Psoter, postgraduate students at UPRSD have begun to win annual research prizes in campuswide postgraduate student research competitions.

The growing partnership between NYU Dentistry and UPRSD also figured prominently in our success last year in being awarded a seven-year, $8.3 million NIH/NIDCR grant to establish the NYU Oral Cancer Research for Adolescent and Adult Health Promotion (RAAHP) Center. Large components of three of the RAAHP Center’s major studies are based at UPRSD, and Dr. Elias serves as co-director of the RAAHP Center.

One of these studies, “Environmental and Genetic Risk Factors in Oral Epithelial Dysplasia (OED) in Puerto Rico” (principal investigator: Dr. Douglas Morse, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology & Health Promotion at NYU Dentistry) is a partnership with Dr. Terri Bravo, a UPRSD professor with a strong background in oral cancer research and education, which involves obtaining OED cases from virtually all the pathology laboratories in Puerto Rico. Another study, “Current and Emerging Technologies in Diagnosing Oral Cancer” (principal investigator: Dr. David Sirois, Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Oral Medicine at NYU Dentistry) will compare six leading oral cancer detection techniques currently available to dental practitioners. Our major partner in this study is Dr. Francisco Bermudez, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon and immunologist at UPRSD.

The third major RAAHP Center study with a strong UPRSD component is “Factors Affecting Cancer Screening and Research Subject Participation in Minorities,” which is a random, digit dial telephone cross-cultural interview of 1,800 Hispanics, African Americans and Caucasians in San Juan, New York City and Baltimore. I am the PI and UPRSD Professor Cristina Claudio is a co-investigator.

The most recent collaboration between NYU Dentistry and UPRSD is a jointly-held UPRSD pilot study of the relationship between preterm birth delivery and periodontal disease, conducted by Dr. Ananda Dasanayake, Associate Professor of Epidemiology & Health Promotion and Director of the M.S. Program in Clinical Research at NYU Dentistry, and Dr. Lydia Lopez, Associate Professor of Ecological Sciences, at UPRSD.

NYU Dentistry and UPRSD are extremely proud of the relationship they have created. This unique, inter-university connection is a win-win for our universities, our faculties, and our students, as well as for dental science and education and the oral health of Puerto Ricans residing both within the Commonwealth and in New York City.