Any given day in the clinic may seem, on the surface, devoted solely to patient care. A more discerning look, however, reveals countless research opportunities waiting to be explored. But just how is this done? Eyeing the end goal — to spark scientific breakthroughs that ultimately benefit patients with new treatments — is a plus, but how does the conceptual evolve into the concrete?
Starting small helps, says Dr. Thomas Diekwisch, Bernhard Gottlieb endowed chair in craniofacial research and periodontics department head. Generating basic science research data in periodontics has served as a testing ground. The model has succeeded in attracting grant dollars already, with $1.2 million in direct funding received from a National Institutes of Health – National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research R01 grant in fall 2017 to explore periodontal homeostasis. Recent news of another $1.7 million on the way, also from NIH-NIDCR, involves the college’s biomedical sciences faculty including Dr. Phillip Kramer and Feng Tao. Both grants benefit from distinctive collaborations with Texas A&M’s biomedical engineering program, Baylor College of Medicine, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
A return to Texas A&M College of Dentistry in 2014 has served as an opportunity for Diekwisch, also director of the school’s Center for Craniofacial Research and Diagnosis, to identify opportunities for researchers and clinicians to partner instead of operating in parallel but separate existences.
Now he shares a bit more about the intrinsically time-consuming nature of advancing an institution’s research footprint, the advantages of employing epigenetics in periodontics research and the unexpected origins of his love for science and nature.
In what ways are you applying your “show, not tell” philosophy here to a model for generating scientific discoveries to solve clinical problems?
You can’t tell your fellow lab scientists: “Discover something!” The most important way one can impact a dental school environment as a scholar is by training clinician-scientists and by providing them with an opportunity to grow and develop their own line of research and clinical expertise. These students are unique assets to their departments and will be able to build lasting bridges between clinicians and scientists.
How do you expect your newest $1.2 million National Institutes of Health grant to advance the study of epigenetics within the field of periodontics?
We have been interested in epigenetics since my early years here, more than 20 years ago and at a time when most scientists didn’t believe that epigenetics existed. We then discovered the importance of epigenetic regulation for periodontal development and, shortly thereafter, that epigenetic factors affect stem cell behavior and that they can be used to trigger the natural ability of the body to regrow its own tissues. We felt that this approach is far better than using stem cells, which are grown outside of the body and hold more potential than the body really needs for the regeneration of individual tissues. We thought that our epigenetics concept may also be of great value for the practicing clinician, and we are currently still improving upon our technology. This will place us in a solid position to continue fostering an environment for translational research, basic research and clinical research at the college, in periodontics and other disciplines.
You trained with renowned periodontist Dr. Lavin Flores-de-Jacoby very early on in your academic career. Was periodontics always in the plan, or did your work with this clinician light a spark, so to speak?
Early on, I was fascinated with orthodontics. I was the youngest patient of a professor from Münster, Germany, and I was treated with traditional appliances from age 3 to 12. He showed my case all over the world and was always very happy to see his treatment approach validated whenever I returned for a follow-up visit. It was also orthodontics during dental school. I bent wires for almost everyone in my class. It was only after graduation from dental school that I decided on a career as a periodontist because it appeared to be the gateway toward a scientific and academic career at that time.
Dr. Flores-de-Jacoby was a consummate periodontist. I wouldn’t call her a researcher. I sat in the first row during class and adored her lectures from beginning to end. For me, it was an extraordinary experience in that sleepy university city of Marburg, where I spent my student years. She was one of only three periodontics professors in Germany at that time, and everything about periodontics was different from the other subjects in dentistry. She knew the scientific basis of perio in great depth, and she was able to relate her broad experience to those willing to listen. In her lectures she talked about Hubert Schroeder, Tony Melcher and Bernhard Gottlieb, whose legacy would later would have such a prominent role during my years here.
Why are you so passionate about research?
I believe my love for science and nature stems from my grandfather, Heinrich Spruch. He knew all the animals in our garden and on our property, the names of all the birds and plants in our neighborhood, and he collected everything about science he could get a hand on. Science and education for all were part of the Social Democratic Workers’ movement, and my grandfather embodied many of its great virtues. He and his friends collected packs of cigarettes, and when they had gotten enough of them, they would exchange them for encyclopedias related to biology or physics or chemistry. My grandfather owned a bookshelf full of these encyclopedias, each of them containing high gloss color prints of plants or animals carefully glued onto alternating pages. On Sundays, the entire village would congregate in my grandmother’s living room, with smoke in the air so thick that I could hardly see any of those dignified individuals. My grandfather introduced me to everyone, even though I was too little to be able to identify their faces through that thick air of smoke. In the afternoon my grandfather and I would have a walk in the garden, and that’s when he had the time and patience to share his love for nature and science.