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Research organization and funding

“Doing research is not just about performing experiments”

22.04.2019
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He is one of the most experienced researchers in the field of regenerative dentistry and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Dental Research. Prof. William Giannobile talked with us about impactful research, the tenacity needed and the Osteology Foundation’s role in educating and funding researchers.

Prof. William Giannobile | United States

Prof. Giannobile, can you recall the publication which made the biggest impression on you?

Prof. Giannobile: When I was a graduate student at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I read a paper about gene therapy.1 It showed that by using gene therapy to regenerate lost tissue one could harness the body’s own ability to produce growth factors instead of applying exogenous proteins. At that time the paper really inspired my own research.


For several reasons many research projects do not end up in a scholarly publication…

Prof. Giannobile: True. If we look at the abstracts presented at scientific meetings and try to track that work, we see that on the average only ten to twenty percent of the findings are eventually published in a peer-reviewed journal. There is a large amount of work that is initiated but not completed and promoted thru scholarly publication.


That’s a sobering statistic! What are the reasons?

Prof. Giannobile: One example: overly optimistic expectations. Researchers want to investigate a hypothesis, and if the data don’t fit the hypothesis, they doubt the data, which leads to retesting, follow up with a larger sample size, demonstration that the data are reproducible, etc. During this process people can lose their enthusiasm or realize the work is too preliminary. But we encourage our students to be tenacious. There are other reasons for not completing research, like insufficient funding or negative publication bias. There is actually a Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine, but it’s not a common journal in which people think of publishing.


You have been the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Dental Research for many years. Has your perception of a good research paper changed over time?

Prof. Giannobile: I have seen the complexity and the need for collaboration growing in dental research. Thirty years ago the average number of authors on a paper was two or three. Now it’s seven or eight. Research questions are being approached more collaboratively, combining, for example, biological sciences with engineering or clinical sciences with computational biology. These collaborative projects are challenging, but the results are also very exciting.


How about the social factors of collaborative research?

Prof. Giannobile: I think in any type of collaboration mutual respect for the individuals with whom you are working is key. Mark Kelly, former NASA astronaut, said during his opening presentation at the 2018 AAP Annual Meeting that he likes to work with people who are competent and not "yes people."

Those two components are important in any type of collaborative research: competence to perform sophisticated types of experiments and being critical but also open and transparent when interpreting results. As a faculty member, I encourage students by letting them know it’s okay to have negative results. We want to know what is really going on.


You are also collaborating with the medical device industry. What is their role in research?

Prof. Giannobile: Industry can help academia because industry focuses on a goal: the desire to bring something to clinical application. It is a great privilege in academia to be able to explore a plethora of ideas, but eventually, if you want to find a real device application or a drug or diagnostic tool for a specific human condition, you are going to have to prioritize and set clear goals. Partnerships between academia and industry can therefore be synergistic.


You are the president elect of the Osteology Foundation. Their motto is "Linking Science with Practice in Regeneration." Also your motto?

Prof. Giannobile: Yes. I feel very privileged to be part of the Osteology Foundation. The theme of bringing solutions into the clinic and balancing clinical practice and science is key. We have the national and international symposia for clinicians and the Osteology Research Academy to train young researchers, and we also have grant programs supporting basic, preclinical and clinical research (see Fig. 1). These pillars are what we think is needed to support evidence-based dentistry.

Do you plan to further extend the Osteology Foundation's research support in the future?

Prof. Giannobile: Yes. There will be more Osteology Research Academies in the next years, teaching also young researchers in the expanding global community. This is not only a valuable source of knowledge. It is also a great opportunity to build up a scientific network with like-minded people.

As the incoming Osteology Foundation president I will strive to walk in the footsteps of our past outstanding leaders in Profs. Christoph Hämmerle and Mariano Sanz. They have emphasized the balance of research and education in oral tissue regeneration. Last year, the Osteology Foundation engaged in a strategic planning process that sought to further promote oral tissue regeneration in a global fashion through our many programs to reach out to the next generation of researchers and clinicians in dentistry. This should be an exciting period for the foundation that recently celebrated its 15th birthday.


What is your advice for somebody who wants to start research outside the university?

Prof. Giannobile: It’s important to realize that doing research is not just about performing experiments and testing study hypotheses. It is also about study coordination, institutional review board approval, staff support to gather quality data, etc.

If not well organized, the quality of the data that comes out is not going to be translatable to clinical practice. So I would encourage people who want to embark in this area to get some additional training.

For example, the Osteology Foundation organizes one-week research academy programs for clinicians who are interested in embarking on clinical research. We are teaching basic principles ranging from grant writing and overt ethical conduct to study management and manuscript preparation, and so on.


What is the research result of which you are proudest?

Prof. Giannobile: A study that comes to mind concerns personalized medicine. In a population of about 5'000 patients we looked at three key risk factors associated with periodontal disease: smoking, diabetes and the expression of a genetic polymorphism. Using these three factors and the patient’s recall interval we were able to predict which patients would lose more teeth and have more adverse dental events.2

It was exciting to see that for the first time we could use a personalized medicine approach to predict patient outcomes in dentistry. It was also a real learning experience for me because initially there was some push back from the dental community. But I was very proud to be a part of it since translation to the clinical is a process bringing together research, clinicians and policy-makers.

Prof. William Giannobile

Prof. William Giannobile | United States

School of Dentistry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

References
  1. Lieberman JR, et al.: J Orthop Res 1998;16(3):330-9.
  2. Giannobile WV, et al.: J Dent Res. 2013; 92(8): 694-701.

Interview conducted by Verena Vermeulen and Todd Scantlebury.

Infographics: Quaint, Zurich, header picture: University of Michigan.

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