A big opportunity to bridge a dental knowledge gap

A passion for dentistry led Dr. Mariana Reis from Brazil to Marquette. Now, it’s helped her obtain a highly competitive NIH postdoctoral award to study the effects of aging on an overlooked-but-essential type of dental connective tissue.

As a high school student in Brazil, Dr. Mariana Reis was that rare person who was eager to return to the dentist’s office. At that time, she showed a strong aptitude for biology and chemistry, with an interest in health care, but wasn’t sure where to direct her energies. As it turned out, her dentist offered her a standing invitation to drop by the clinic to watch dentistry in action, and she jumped at the chance. “I just loved the interactions with patients and the commitment to making their lives better,” notes Reis. She was hooked from there.

Now a postdoctoral fellow at Marquette’s School of Dentistry, Reis is realizing her passion. She recently received a prestigious K99/R00 award from the National Institutes of Health, which supports outstanding postdoctoral researchers in transitioning from mentored to independent research. The award spans seven years and is anticipated to reach $1.46 million, with the first two years (the K99) spent under the mentorship of Dr. Ana Bedran-Russo, chair and professor of general dental sciences. The final five years (the R00) mark the independent phase. This is the first such K99 grant awarded to a fellow in dentistry at Marquette.

Reis’s project looks at how cementum — a connective, mineralized tissue that attaches the tooth to the gum and absorbs the pressure of chewing — is adversely affected by aging and periodontal disease. Though only a thin layer of tissue covering the root, cementum plays a large role in supporting the tooth. When that support degrades, problems ensue, such as tooth loss, a common problem for the elderly.

“I just loved the interactions with patients and the commitment to making their lives better.”

Dr. Mariana Reis

Reis became intrigued by cementum during her early years in the Bedran-Russo lab, which does cutting-edge research into dentin, another mineralized tissue. Realizing that research into dentin was much further along than cementum, Reis set herself on a path to fill those gaps in scientific knowledge.

“Researchers might study how much cementum is lost” — for example, through dental procedures such as scaling and root planing — “but they don’t really study the tissue per se,” Reis explains. “That’s what I want to look at — the tissue itself.”

During the project’s first two years, Reis will compare healthy and diseased cementum from human teeth across different age groups. She’ll be creating a profile of aging cementum by identifying its biomechanical, structural and mechanical features, as well as showing how aging aggravates periodontal inflammation.

During the final five years, Reis will track the effects of aging and periodontal disease on mice in real time. She will characterize cementum’s composition and physico-mechanical properties while the inflammation progresses, as well as determine how cementum regenerates as the disease abates. While analyzing the molecular mechanisms activated by the inflammation, she’ll look at the role genetic molecules called microRNAs play.

Through this project, Reis will generate fundamental knowledge about cementum as it relates to aging and periodontal disease. That knowledge will serve as a foundation for the scientific community to come up with future biomedical advances, such as more effective periodontal treatments and regenerative strategies that can ultimately help people maintain healthy teeth and gums as they age.

The research bug hit Reis early in dental school at the University of Sao Paulo, where her mentors guided her through intensive pre-doctoral research. With that background, Reis jumped right into her Ph.D., specializing in the study of dental materials.

As doctoral work was winding down, Reis weighed her future options, all appealing: research, teaching, clinical work. When she heard of the opening in Bedran-Russo’s lab, with its inspiring research agenda, the scales swiftly tilted. “The high level and rigorousness of Ana’s science, the exceptional quality of her team — all made me fall more in love with research,” Reis says. “Ana’s support was fundamental for me not to give up. Research is really hard and frustrating at times. But there’s also so much beauty, so much knowledge that can be created.”

Bedran-Russo’s most recent research project on dentin is funded by a $2 million, four-year award through NIH’s top funding tier, the R01 program. It began in 2019 and is allowing Bedran-Russo, who came to Marquette in 2020, to leverage her expertise to help another talented researcher launch an NIH-funded research project of her own. It’s a testament to the power of mentorship and part of a larger trend through which external funding to the School of Dentistry has grown by 50 percent over the last decade.