UW News

August 3, 1999

UW awarded $11 million to study oral health issues for children

A federal agency has awarded the University of Washington $11 million over five years for a research center dedicated to improving the oral health of children.

In so doing, investigators hope to eventually improve the oral health of the nation.

“Most oral diseases — not all, but most — either begin during childhood or have their origins in conditions that exist in childhood,” says Dr. Timothy DeRouen, who will be the center’s program director. “If we can focus on understanding the origins of oral disease during childhood, then we can make a lot of progress in trying to prevent disease.”

DeRouen is professor and chair of the Department of Dental Public Health Sciences in the School of Dentistry and professor of biostatistics in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine. Those two schools are participating in the center, as well as the UW School of Medicine, Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center, insurance carrier Washington Dental Service and the Washington State Department of Health.

Researchers are also collaborating with counterparts at four foreign universities. All told, about 40 UW faculty are involved.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research is funding the center, which will be called the Comprehensive Oral Health Research Center of Discovery. It is one of six funded nationwide, and the only one specializing in children’s health. The agency received 21 applications, averaging 1,000 pages each, for funding.

UW scientists say they received the grant in part because of their existing involvement in research about childhood dental disease. Dental disease is particularly a problem for children living at or below the poverty level: 80 percent of the nation’s childhood cavities are found in 25 percent of the children.

“Such neglect will eventually come back to haunt our society in the form of adults with oral disease,” DeRouen says.

Among the 14 projects planned by the center are several studies that examine the biological foundations of how cells respond to the bacteria that cause oral disease.

Studies will also measure the effectiveness of different methods of changing the behavior of children, parents, and dentists. One study will look at physiological mechanisms that affect a child’s preference for sugar, and may help identify children at risk for overeating sweets. Another study will seek out the most effective ways to motivate mothers to adopt new behaviors and avoid inadvertently exposing their children to dental disease. Another study will seek out the most effective way to get dentists to adopt new technologies for preventing cavities in children.

Scientists will also study dental disease among children with HIV in Senegal, how to reduce the pain and distress of children who are being treated for dental problems, jaw surgeries and how they work, and calcium intake and its effect on osteoporosis of the jaw.

The center will also provide education for professionals from around the world in how to conduct clinical trials relating to pediatric dentistry. Conferences will be scheduled to discuss childhood dental disease, including the outcomes of the center’s own studies.

“We want to make sure that the results of all this get translated to the profession and to the general public,” DeRouen says.