Dentistry professor continues research to fight gum disease, associated conditions

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Sinem Esra Sahingur, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Sinem Esra Sahingur, D.D.S., Ph.D., has received a five-year, $1.9 million National Institutes of Health grant to study the cause of periodontitis, which is the inflammation of gums that can lead to tooth loss and additional health complications if not treated.

“Nearly half of all adults in the United States suffer from periodontal diseases and … almost 10 percent of that group exhibits severe forms of the diseases which cannot be controlled or treated using currently available treatment protocols,” said Sahingur, who is an associate professor in the Department of Periodontics, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry.

“Chronic oral inflammation eventually results in tooth loss and can raise the risk for several systemic conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, pregnancy complications, arthritis and cancer. Identification of new preventive and therapeutic options to control persistent inflammation within the oral cavity is therefore crucial for better oral and systemic health,” she said.

Sahingur’s team has been searching for ways to prevent and cure periodontitis. In a recent study published in the journal Infection and Immunity, Sahingur identified TLR9 as one of the key molecules that can contribute to periodontal disease development by exacerbating the local inflammatory responses. This identifies a potential new therapy for periodontitis. Sahingur’s current grant proposal will extend prior studies to fully characterize the biological pathways of TLR9-triggered periodontal inflammation and test the therapeutic potential of TLR9 inhibitors to halt periodontal inflammation and bone loss.

TLR9 is an immune receptor that can recognize microbial nucleic acids — its activation triggers inflammation.

“Oral microbial DNA is abundantly present within the oral cavity but it can also be found at distant sites such as plaque in arteries, placenta and synovial fluid of arthritis lesions,” Sahingur said. “We hope our findings will not only characterize new pathways and therapeutics to control local periodontitis, but also lead to future investigations to identify a link between periodontitis and the systemic complications associated with it.”

Sahingur is a former VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research KL2 scholar, a program she credits with helping her earn the current grant. The CCTR KL2 program provides substantial salary support and startup funds for faculty-level clinical and translational research scientists.

“The education core of the VCU CCTR is committed to fostering the careers of budding and established investigators via both its educational offerings and KL2 career development awards,” said Arun Sanyal, M.D., director of the VCU CCTR Education Core. “We hope Dr. Sahingur’s success will be the first of many from our brilliant KL2 awardees.”

“I’m a clinician-scientist in a clinical department, and although there was time for research, a considerable amount of my time was allocated to activities involving clinics and teaching,” Sahingur said. “The timing of the KL2 award was just right, providing me additional time and funding to be involved in more research and take my studies to the next level.”

“Dr. Sahingur is one of our emerging stars in the School of Dentistry research program,” said David Sarrett, D.M.D., dean of the VCU School of Dentistry. “She joins a cadre of junior and senior investigators who have well-defined research agendas propelled by internal and external collaborations. VCU is being noticed by other dental school deans for a rapidly growing national presence in oral health research.”

Sahingur“s grant is an R01, which, according to the National Institutes of Health website, “is the original and historically oldest grant mechanism used by NIH. The R01 provides support for health-related research and development based on the mission of the NIH.”

Before this grant, NIH/NIDCR awarded Sahingur an R03, which is a special grant for new investigators. The CCTR KL2 program provides support for such promising investigators to develop their research program further and successfully compete for independent federal funding.

“The CCTR team is proud to have helped Dr. Sahingur achieve her outstanding accomplishment,” said F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., director of the VCU CCTR. “Workforce development in translational science is one of our top priorities, and Dr. Sahingur’s grant award is a manifestation of our strong commitment to that development.”

Sahingur’s research interests focus on studying the role of immune and inflammatory pathways and host-pathogen interactions in periodontal disease pathogenesis, genetic and epigenetic susceptibility to periodontitis and the link between oral and systemic diseases.

Sahingur received her dental degree from Istanbul University and her M.S., Ph.D. and periodontics clinical residency from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is also a faculty member of Philips Institute for Oral Health Research in the VCU School of Dentistry and an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the VCU School of Medicine.

“Periodontics and research are my passions,” Sahingur said. “Being a clinician and a researcher gives me the opportunity to contribute to academia in many different capacities. I love that I can have an impact on my patients’ lives directly in the clinic and that my research will contribute to better health in the future. It is also my goal to promote the significance of science and new discoveries within the next generation of clinicians and scientists.”