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Scientist leads oral health research efforts

by Cindy Abole
Public Relations
MUSC translational scientist Keith Kirkwood has a dream for strengthening the level of oral health research on MUSC’s campus.
And like “Field of Dreams” movie character Ray Kinsella, Kirkwood believes that “if you build it, they will come.”
Dr. Keith Kirkwood

Kirkwood’s aim is to expand and support research in the College of Dental Medicine by connecting and recruiting talented researchers through collaborative research opportunities that will improve the quality of health care for South Carolinians.
In February, Kirkwood replaced Steven London, DDS, Ph.D., former associate dean for dental research who left MUSC in 2007. A renowned periodontal clinician, Kirkwood was an associate professor in the Department of Periodontics and Oral Medicine at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. Now he embraces new challenges, leadership and collaboration potential at MUSC.
“I want to be able to take things that can be utilized where I can see promise from strong animal models and translate that to patients from bench to bedside,” said Kirkwood. “I was searching for an opportunity to grow and create something that can contribute to MUSC’s mission as a research intensive institution. I wanted to be part of that legacy. It’s what drives me both as a researcher and educator to do what I’m doing right now and I’m happy about that. I liked the opportunities presented here at MUSC.”
Kirkwood fills the shoes of a man who started a program from scratch and built it.
“Dr. London was able to create a dental research program from almost nothing and successfully set the stage for oral health research within the college and throughout campus,” said John J. Sanders, DDS, dean of the College of Dental Medicine. “I expect Keith to carry it through and bring more success to our programs.”
Recruiting Kirkwood to MUSC was quite a coup for the university.
“Dr. Kirkwood’s experience and expertise will greatly accelerate the College of Dental Medicine and university’s Center for Oral Health Research mission that will improve and impact our knowledge of diabetes, oral cancer and other diseases,” said Stephen M. Lanier, Ph.D., associate provost for research and professor of cell and molecular pharmacology. “Already the college has laid the foundation for an oral and craniofacial health research center by assembling a talented team with an outstanding sense of mission. The program was primed for bringing aboard individuals of Dr. Kirkwood’s caliber.”
Potential and growth
Kirkwood was attracted to the potential of MUSC as an emerging academic medical center with numerous opportunities for growth. Considered small compared to other accredited dental education programs around the country, MUSC’s program has much to offer, said Kirkwood. Construction of the new 107,000-square-foot clinical education center, scheduled to be completed in fall 2009, will provide additional lab space and new equipment and technologies to help with recruitment. As a magnet investigator, Kirkwood hopes to attract other investigators and new talent to MUSC.
The six-story building  also is expected to allow the school to expand its dental student population, enhance collaborative research capabilities and strengthen opportunities for training and clinical services.

Establishing a research center
Additionally, Kirkwood has assumed leadership of the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) for Oral Health grant, which is establishing the Center for Oral Health Research, a multidisciplinary and interactive center within the College of Dental Medicine to coordinate oral health research, intervention and prevention strategies to improve the oral health for South Carolinians. COBRE and Center for Oral Health Research will focus on five mentored research projects and three core resources—administrative, clinical and biostatistics. The center recently won a five-year grant renewal until 2012.
The college expects Kirkwood to help attain nationally-recognized status for its oral research program. “I’m positive he’ll have a good chance of accomplishing this,” Sanders said. “There’s more opportunity than ever before with current construction of the new James B. Edwards Dental Clinical building and research space for investigators. He’s an experienced researcher and a board certified periodontist who understands both the clinical and research worlds, and is driven to taking new discoveries and aligning them with the institution’s direction in translational research.”
Since his arrival in mid-February, Kirkwood has set three research priorities that relate to inflammation, cell signaling, cancer biology, tissue engineering and drug discovery. These priorities are improving head and neck cancer research, strengthening bioengineering research between MUSC and the state’s top research universities and utilizing stem cell biology.
For head and neck cancer research, Kirkwood is aligning clinicians and researchers to create a more integrated head and neck/oral cancer program.
“We want to integrate our research missions between different colleges and departments so that our efforts are more intertwined and not overlooked,” said Kirkwood, whose research has focused on the study of chronic inflammation, chemotherapeutics and cell signaling.
Since coming to MUSC, he has addressed specific health and community groups in an oral health project studying the correlation of oral/systemic health and chronic disease among specific populations, notably racial minorities.
“We need to provide better population data for interventional studies and oral health screenings to help identify at-risk populations for oral cancer. We can break through so many health disparities through early intervention and prevention efforts,” Kirkwood said. “At MUSC, we’re trying to bridge basic, clinical and translational sciences together. It’s a significant mission for any program, especially dental medicine and those who have been traditionally connected with the clinical delivery of health care for patients.”

Preparing talent
Meanwhile, Kirkwood and Michael Kern, Ph.D., Cell Biology and Anatomy associate professor, codirect the Dental Medical Scientist Training Program (DMSTP) are preparing DMD/Ph.D., students for biomedicine. DMSTP is open to six, first-and second-year dental students, and is funded by the comprehensive research training program T32 awards offered by National Institute for Dental Craniofacial Research. Typical to T32 programs, the DMSTP also offers NIH-funded post-doctoral training to attract and recruit individuals interested in pursuing biomedical research careers. The program, which begins in July, has selected two post-doctoral candidates and has two slots yet unfilled.
Kirkwood received his dental degree from West Virginia University in 1991. In 1997, he earned his doctorate in oral biology and completed a molecular biology post-doctoral fellowship in 1999 from SUNY at Buffalo, where he had also received a periodontics certificate. He has authored several peer-reviewed papers, abstracts and book chapters on periodontics and oral health research. He has received numerous grants and awards, including the 2005 American Academy of Periodontology Founda-tion’s Tarrson Fellowship, which recognized him as among the country’s most outstanding academic periodontists.


Friday, June 13, 2008
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