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Pitt dental school to start program on cleft palates, head injuries

The University of Pittsburgh's dental school is starting a program that will produce a new generation of professors and researchers in specialties including preventing birth defects of the mouth and face — such as cleft palates — and growing new bones and cartilage to repair facial injuries.

Dr. Mark Mooney, chairman of the graduate program in oral biology, which will begin its inaugural class of master's and doctoral candidates next fall, plans to build on the university's strengths in those two medical specialties.

Although some universities have made progress in one discipline or the other, Mooney said Pitt's strengths in both make the school unique and should offer a prime draw for students hoping to teach and do advanced research that takes science from the laboratory to patient treatment.

He said the new students are likely to tackle a host of challenges, including unraveling the genetic underpinnings of cleft palates. The birth defect that affects about 16 in every 10,000 live births in the United States is among the most common, Mooney said.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show cleft palates are about 20 percent more prevalent than Down syndrome. But early surgical interventions here make the appearance of cleft palates an anomaly in the country.

Scientists have identified multiple genes involved in the condition, but Mooney said the challenge remains to determine how those genes interact at a molecular level and what errors in such interactions translate into the condition.

"We're finding the more we know about this, the less we know," Mooney said.

The new department's other specialty track, craniofacial tissue engineering — growing new bones and cartilage for the head and face — could tap into Pitt's McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Mooney said researchers there work closely with the Department of Defense.

Long-term goals, aimed at treating wounds soldiers receive in battle, include creating an artificial platform that could be used in the body to grow cells to replace damaged cartilage or bone in the face.

Mooney said the oral biology program, funded by a variety of grants, will begin accepting applications later this fall.

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