Dental school nurtures ties with industry
“In dentistry, we want to move things from the laboratory bench to the point of care.”
A dental products manufacturer headquartered in Germany had a problem. Company representatives suspected that someone was selling counterfeits of a brand-name composite resin in foreign markets. The questionable goods had been packaged professionally, matching authentic products in outward appearance. Without specialized help, it wasn’t possible to tell whether materials were real or imitation.
The manufacturer called on School of Dental Medicine scientists for help. Peter and Mary Bush, husband-and-wife UB researchers, had recently presented at a company symposium in Frankfurt, discussing the database they and colleagues had compiled of the chemical and physical characteristics of more than 100 modern and historic composite resins.
If the suspicious foreign material were in fact genuine, it would contain aluminum, barium and silicon and have the same microstructure as the brand-name material whose properties the UB scientists had documented.
Peter Bush, director of the South Campus Instrumentation Center in Squire Hall, offered the center’s services pro bono. Within days, the company had an answer. And the School of Dental Medicine had strengthened its relationship with the manufacturer, a major industry player that had already retained Carlos Munoz, chair of the Department of Restorative Dentistry, to lead a multiyear clinical trial for a new composite resin.
For an institution looking to expand collaborations with private industry, the scenario was pure win-win.
In fact, the School of Dental Medicine is making relationships with the private sector a high priority these days. Privately funded projects enable faculty and students to conduct cutting-edge research, improve oral health care and benefit consumers by bringing better products to the market. School-industry connections also enrich the educational experience for students who will be working with the dental industry in their practices.
School-industry partnerships also generate revenue for the school. In the first 10 months of fiscal year 2009, faculty conducted more than $986,000 worth of research funded by industry, according to Anne Meyer, the school’s associate dean for research.
In recent years, more than 100 companies have supported projects at the School of Dental Medicine, including clinical trials and laboratory evaluations of products ranging from dental adhesives and whiteners to a nasal spray that could act as a dental anesthetic.
“Our faculty are not just interested in what’s available now,” says Dean Richard Buchanan. “They are interested in what’s next.”
“It’s vital to the world at large, because what we’re talking about is moving materials and treatments into the clinic,” Meyer says. “In dentistry, we want to move things from the laboratory bench to the point of care.”
That is the perspective Carlos Munoz brought when he came to the school in 2004. He had extensive experience partnering in research with dental products suppliers as a faculty member at Loma Linda University School of Dentistry. Indeed, the German company with the counterfeit problem was one of Munoz’s long-standing clients.
And although the school’s quick work on the company’s suspect resin did not generate revenue, the effort enriched the connection in other ways.
Dhruvika Patel, a dental student, had the opportunity to participate in the investigation. She obtained samples of the suspect composite resin and other potentially fraudulent materials through relatives in India and examined them, along with a sample from China, under a scanning electron microscope in Bush’s lab.
The research was an opportunity for the school to show off the capabilities of its unique composite resin database. And the project generated goodwill with an important industry partner. “The goodwill has an effect in that the company will think of us again to sponsor another study,” Peter Bush says.
Partnering with industry is a work-intensive process of building trust. Longtime faculty members such as Robert Genco, director of the Periodontal Disease Clinical Research Center, and Sebastian Ciancio, chair of the Department of Periodontics and Endodontics and director of the Center for Dental Studies, have developed strong relationships with industry in their decades at UB.
Working with industry partners, Genco was principal investigator for four multicenter clinical trials that were pivotal in FDA approval for products.
Ciancio, who has overseen more than $8 million in industry-connected clinical trials, says most industry partners are repeat clients. And new faculty are bringing industry expertise and clients with them to Buffalo.
Sebastiano Andreana, a dental implants expert who left UB in 2005 for a position at the pharmaceuticals company Pfizer, followed by a position at Loma Linda, returned to UB in December. His career has included designing clinical studies and helping to launch a number of dental products and materials, including mouth rinses and a dental laser.
Donald Antonson, associate chair of the Department of Restorative Dentistry, joined UB in 2007 with a wealth of industry experience, having served as director of clinical research for Dentsply Caulk, a division of the world’s largest professional dental products company.
Antonson continues to work closely with industry partners, evaluating products for such companies as Ivoclar Vivadent, an international dental products supplier whose U.S. headquarters is in Amherst; Dentsply International; GC America; Kerr Corporation; and Ultradent Products.
“You have to spend the time to be successful,” he says. “It doesn’t just come to you. You attend meetings, you contact companies, approach their R&D directors, their product development specialists, raise questions and provide feedback. Afterward, if your advice has been useful, they engage in further interactions leading to product improvement and learning.”
He adds that a benefit of the interaction is new information and the eventual exchange and incorporation of new ideas into the dental curriculum.
Munoz, who set up a biomaterials laboratory at the school in 2007, invites industry representatives to visit. His research facility houses a profilometer that measures surfaces’ roughness, a universal testing machine that assesses how much stress materials can withstand, and a color booth where researchers check how products look in different types of lighting.
Another new capability of interest to industry partners is the school’s electronic oral health record system that will bolster the research enterprise in addition to improving patient care.
“To have the electronic oral health records, you must have certain protective processes in place,” Meyer says. “You must have very good control of your data. We have the necessary controls, and if a company is doing a clinical research study with us, we can protect their information very, very well.”
Products ranging from Dentsply Caulk’s self-adhesive cement SmartCem2 to Crest’s Glide Floss were tested at UB. Now they are in widespread use.
Ciancio’s center is active in numerous industry-sponsored research projects that may lead to breakthroughs in dentistry. He and colleagues recently completed a study evaluating the effectiveness of a device that uses ozone to kill bacteria and halt tooth decay.
“If the study’s results are positive, it will mean that for many small cavities, people won’t have to have decay drilled out of their teeth: ozone can be applied to stop the decay,” Ciancio says.
He and fellow researchers are also conducting a clinical trial of a nasal spray that numbs the upper jaw, potentially eliminating the need for painful anesthesia injections preceding dental work on the upper arch. If successful, he predicts that the product “will change the whole way dentistry is done.”
Genco, who now also directs the office responsible for commercializing inventions of UB faculty and students, says partnerships that bring academia and business together are vital in delivering new goods to the market.
“For products invented by UB faculty, the industrial partner often will actually develop the material and has a license to develop it. They often take responsibility for providing the safety and efficacy data necessary for Food and Drug Administration approval, which is a very expensive proposition. They’re responsible for manufacturing, quality control, distribution, marketing and sales. So it’s a very necessary partnership—the university is not well-suited to do those things.”
George Tysowsky, Ivoclar Vivadent’s North America vice president of technology, says university partners play a critical role in helping to launch products his company creates.
“We feel we’re excellent in developing new technologies,” he said. “But we utilize universities in their clinical and specialized expertise to validate the basic fundamentals of the products, as well as the product’s performance in laboratory and clinical settings.”
Ultimately, partnerships between universities and industry also serve the public by keeping subpar products from reaching consumers.
“You need to be able to tell your industry sponsors some things they don’t want to hear,” Meyer says. “Perhaps their new best idea isn’t turning out so well. You need to be able to say that. There are different kinds of sponsors. Some will be very unhappy and may just finish it there. But other sponsors, and the majority of sponsors, will say, Why is that happening? Why isn’t this working the way we thought it would?”
Students trained in an environment where faculty conduct research for industry will have better critical thinking skills when they become dentists and start purchasing products for dental practices, Meyer says.
“Instead of just taking the Dear Doctor speech, hook, line and sinker, they can ask more probing questions—What happened in the clinical trial? An educated customer is a better customer,” she says.
Patel is a perfect example. Working with Peter Bush, she discovered that a Chinese sample of the German manufacturer’s brand-name composite resin was indeed an imitation, containing silicon but missing the aluminum and barium that the genuine product included. One of two Indian samples was also bogus.
Patel, who had practiced dentistry in India, had often wondered why some brand-name dental products were available at a wide range of prices in her home country. Her research provides an unsettling answer.
“It’s a red flag for everybody involved in dentistry who is purchasing the dental material, for the distributors and the dentists who are buying from them,” she says. “Everybody is tempted to buy the cheaper material, but you always have to find out why that is cheaper—it could be fake.”