Campus News

Longtime UB faculty member Robert Genco dies at 80

Robert Genco in his lab.

Pioneering researcher Robert Genco served in a variety of positions during his 51 years at UB. Photo: Douglas Levere

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published March 7, 2019

“He will be remembered for his towering intellect, for innovative research that transformed the scientific basis of dental practice, and most of all, for his exceptional humanity which he generously shared with his many students and colleagues.”
Joseph Zambon, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor and dean
School of Dental Medicine

Robert J. Genco, a world-renowned researcher in oral science and a tireless advocate for interdisciplinary research and entrepreneurship at UB for the past 51 years, died unexpectedly March 6. He was 80.

Lauded by the Journal of Dental Research as the “father of oral science,” Genco was arguably the world’s leading periodontal researcher and a pioneer in advancing the study of how oral health impacts overall health.

A member of the National Academy of Medicine, an organization that advises the global community and addresses critical issues in health, medicine and related policy, Genco, was a SUNY Distinguished Professor of Oral biology, Periodontics and Microbiology.

He and his colleagues were among the first to report a connection between gum disease and heart disease, stroke and several cancers, and led studies that linked periodontitis to diabetes and obesity — all of which were discoveries that have influenced decades of oral health care research and products.

“Dr. Genco was a world-renowned scholar, educator, mentor, innovator and entrepreneur who was exceptionally committed to our university throughout his long and distinguished career,” President Satish K. Tripathi said.

“Our hearts go out to Dr. Genco’s wife, Frances; his son, Robert, and his daughters, Julie Alford and Deborah Powell; to all of his colleagues in the School of Dental Medicine and across the university; and to the countless students whose lives he touched over more than five decades at UB.

“Dr. Genco was always an invaluable source of support, perspective and leadership to me personally, and to our entire university community. I know I speak on behalf of our entire UB family when I say that he will be sorely missed.”

Genco, a native of Silver Creek, N.Y., joined UB as a faculty member in 1968. During his 51 years at the university, he published more than 400 scientific articles, published or edited nearly 30 books and book chapters, served in editorial positions for nearly a dozen scientific journals, held nearly a dozen patents, and received numerous multimillion-dollar grants as the principal investigator on research projects.

He served as director of the UB Microbiome Center, and as chair of the Department of Oral Biology for 25 years, leading the department from 1977–2002. In 2004, he also held the positions of interim provost and interim vice president for research.

Genco also was highly regarded as a teacher and mentor, serving as a mentor to more than 80 graduate and postdoctoral students, many of whom are now leaders in academia, industry and government research institutions.

“Dr. Genco was a legendary figure in dental research known throughout the world,” said Joseph J. Zambon, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor and dean of the School of Dental Medicine.

“He will be remembered for his towering intellect, for innovative research that transformed the scientific basis of dental practice, and most of all, for his exceptional humanity which he generously shared with his many students and colleagues.”

An active researcher and thought leader at the university, Genco’s studies largely focused on understanding oral diseases. His lab is responsible for numerous scientific findings, including the identification of bacteria responsible for gum disease and the establishment of smoking, osteoporosis and stress as risk factors for periodontal infections. He also searched for clues that oral health in pregnant women may be related to fetal health.

“I had the great fortune to work with Bob Genco on studies linking oral and systemic health over the past 20 years. Our current work has been on the role of the oral microbiome in health and disease,” said Jean Wactawski-Wende, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health and dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions.

“Bob was a world-renowned scientist, engaging colleague, generous mentor and dear friend. He was a true university citizen and one of the most remarkable men I have ever known.”

While research was Genco’s first passion, guiding UB innovations toward commercialization was a close second. He continuously advocated for advancing fundamental findings toward market-ready products for the public.

Genco served as vice provost of the UB Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR) from 2002-16, where he successfully commercialized both his own discoveries and those of UB faculty and students.

Under Genco’s leadership, STOR helped launch more than 80 businesses in Western New York and processed more than 1,300 new technology disclosures, of which nearly 200 resulted in licenses for companies.

His research on gum disease led to the commercialization of 10 oral health care products, ranging from toothpastes to soy calcium tablets that help ward off osteoporosis. The formation of the popular GUM brand of oral health products in 1989 was largely influenced by a partnership between Genco and the Sunstar Group.

“Bob Genco embodied the best characteristics of the University at Buffalo. His passion for science and research was infectious; I fondly remember his face lighting up with excitement every time he spoke about his new findings. He will be missed,” said Venu Govindaraju, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and vice president for research and economic development.

Genco received numerous awards throughout his career, including the American Dental Association (ADA) Gold Medal for Excellence in Research, the ADA Award for Clinical Research, the SUNY Research Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and the International Association for Dental Research (IADR) Distinguished Scientist Award.

He is a past president of both the IADR and American Association for Dental Research.

Genco received a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of Pennsylvania, a doctorate in dental surgery from UB, and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Canisius College.

A funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. March 9 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 724 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.

READER COMMENT

Dr. Genco was critical to Kinex/Athenex's licensing of technology from my UB lab. Without him, I don't think Athenex would be here today. Athenex is now a successful, global, biopharmaceutical company, having completed an IPO on the Nasdaq in 2017, and is building a large manufacturing facility in Dr. Genco's home town area (Dunkirk), is headquartered in Buffalo, and employs about 500 people. It was Dr. Genco's drive to facilitate the translation of UB research into successful local companies that pushed the critical licensing agreement through. Dr. Genco will be greatly missed.

David Hangauer, UB emeritus associate professor of chemistry and Kinex/Athenex founder