UCSF receives $24.4 million to fight early childhood cavities

December 18, 2008

The UCSF School of Dentistry has received the largest grant in its history: $24.4 million from the National Institutes of Health to address socio-economic and cultural disparities in oral health.

The seven-year grant, which is funded through the NIH National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, will enable the UCSF Center to Address Disparities in Children's Oral Health (nicknamed CAN DO) to launch new programs in preventing early childhood tooth decay. The programs will include new research to compare methods to prevent dental caries in children, as well as efforts to integrate and implement current scientific understanding across a variety of primary care and social service settings.

NIH also tapped UCSF as the Data Coordinating Center for three of the funded centers: UCSF, Boston University and University of Colorado, Denver. These three centers are being collectively called the Early Childhood Caries Collaborative Centers. Each center includes two randomized clinical trials and all are focused on preventing early childhood caries in different vulnerable, high risk populations.

"Dental caries is the most common chronic disease among children and it is becoming more prevalent nationwide, disproportionately among children in low-income families and certain minority groups," said John Featherstone, PhD, dean of the UCSF School of Dentistry. "This disease is very difficult and expensive to treat in young children, but it is largely preventable."

Dental caries is an infectious disease and is one of the most prevalent health conditions in the United States, according to the NIH, and disparities in oral health echo across the life span.

The 1999-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, from the Centers for Disease Control, illustrated these disparities in children by race/ethnicity, with 42 percent of Mexican American and 32 percent of black children ages 2-5 having decayed or filled teeth, compared with 24 percent of white children.

The new programs will assess the best way to reach susceptible young children and their caregivers to prevent early childhood caries and reduce oral health disparities. Early childhood caries is a particularly devastating form of dental caries in young children. General anesthesia is often required for treatment of early childhood caries, making it an expensive and traumatic condition to treat, said Jane Weintraub, DDS, MPH, professor and chair of the Division of Oral Epidemiology and Dental Public Health at UCSF.

"We need to get out the message that healthy baby teeth are important for children's health and well-being," said Weintraub, who is the principal investigator for the CAN DO Center. "We have an easy, relatively low-cost strategy - fluoride varnish painted on the child's teeth - that helps to help prevent teeth from decaying and causing children to have toothaches and difficulty eating, sleeping and speaking."

Weintraub said this funding will enable the UCSF program to forge new partnerships with dental, medical and primary care colleagues, as well as with the federally-funded Women, Infants and Children (WIC) health and nutrition program, to create effective ways of improving children's oral health in non-traditional settings.

"We're hoping that children across the state and nationally will benefit from these projects with improved oral health, health and quality of life," she said. "In this country, all young children should have healthy smiles and not suffer from toothaches."
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The CAN DO center was created in 2001 with roughly half the funding level of the current award. Weintraub said this award reflects the accomplishments of the research team over the past seven years and the importance of the goals it is striving to achieve.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. For further information, visit www.ucsf.edu.

University of California - San Francisco

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