Midwestern University, in collaboration with the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIH NIDCR), is spearheading an initiative that will better resolve the connection between oral health and common gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional dyspepsia (chronic indigestion). Faculty and students from the College of Dental Medicine-Arizona (CDMA), the College of Dental Medicine-Illinois (CDMI), and The Center for Health and the Social Sciences (CHeSS) at the University of Chicago received a $3.4 million dollar NIH award to work together on a hybrid research training program and long-term clinical study to delve into this topic.
Gina Agostini-Walesch, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor, CDMA, shed light on the collaborative efforts stating, “The University of Chicago is known for training programs in clinical research, which they offer in the form of workshops. The main emphasis of our program is to train new cohorts of dental students in how to do clinical research. When they graduate, they become dental practitioners who can join a national-based practice research network and continue participating in research efforts through Midwestern University. In this way, the University will create a sustainable infrastructure for research-trained clinicians entering the workforce.”
John Mitchell, Ph.D., Associate Dean, CDMA, outlined aspects of the grant. “We train preclinical and clinical faculty and develop mentoring relationships between them, our research faculty, and our students. Students on each campus are being trained by the University of Chicago to conduct clinical research, with four or more faculty members on each campus also going through the same training,” he said. “The project we have chosen to conduct is to look at the potential relationships that exist between oral inflammation and other oral manifestations of disease and functional gastrointestinal disorders. We know that the mouth is the gateway to the rest of the body. While evidence shows a relationship between oral and digestive health exists, it isn’t well resolved. The aim of the clinical portion of this award is to help resolve it.”
For Cooper Luke (CDMA ’26) the connection to this study resonates personally. “My brother-in-law has a GI issue with ulcers in the mouth. It is a hard situation. The study helps us research oral effects, and I can help my brother-in-law.”
Dr. Agostini-Walesch elaborated further, “The students will help us build health databases that reflect actual populations, creating the diverse representation that we need to do this health research more honestly and effectively.” Dr. Michell added, “Essentially every dentist has a research project. They are conducting research continuously and asking questions such as ‘Does this product work? Is this a viable method for my patients?’ Participating in this program helps them develop critical thinking skills and creates an analytic framework so necessary for this type of practice.” As part of the project, the students will learn how to incorporate data collection into standard dental cleaning appointments. One of the largest barriers dentists face when it comes to research is time. By learning how to build prospective clinical research into existing appointment flow, clinical faculty and graduating students can participate in and create their own clinical studies with minimal disruption to patient care.
“They’re going to learn how to systematically capture data during charting, collect health information in a research context, often while doing things they would already be doing as good dentists, like bleeding-on-probing, and take photos of teeth and gum tissues. The key difference here is that we focus on how to capture this information systematically and reliably so each person’s data will be consistent with everyone else in the study,” Dr. Agostini-Walesch said.
In addition, Midwestern University students graduate and practice all over the country and can continue participating with the clinical study if they choose to do so.
Preetha Kanjirath, B.D.S., M.D.S., M.S., Professor, CDMI, highlighted the comprehensive training students will receive as clinician scientists. “Their training focuses on systematically collecting and analyzing scientific data, addressing clinical challenges, and contributing to broader research goals. This integrated approach aims to equip students with the skills to both practice medicine and actively participate in advancing scientific knowledge within the healthcare field.
Students taking part in the project also shared their experiences so far. Breanna Aikens, (CDMA ’26) said, “The benefits of participating in this research program is the direct hands-on clinical research experience I will obtain while simultaneously getting my dental education. The program can provide valuable insights and connections to other colleagues and peers doing similar research.”
Ethan Groen (CDMA ’26) said, “We can take our experiences and work with research companies and use this in our practices, furthering dentistry for our patients.” Cooper added, “Research helps us understand new research coming out 10, 20, 30 years down the road, and understand what product is good or not. We will have the experience and know what to look for.”
Students also emphasized the significant benefits of integrating research into their education. ReeAnn Rice (CDMA ’25) shared, “A huge benefit is how we can use what we are doing here, educate our patients, and be better able to treat them. Over last 10-20 years, the focus is on treating the whole being of a patient, the One Health connection.”
Emily Tarr (CDMA ’25) added, “By doing this research cohort, we’ll be prepared to join other practices in this network, conducting practice-based research that we can be a part of as practitioners.”
Tina Shekari (CDMA ’25), president, Student Research Group, touched on the future interdepartmental collaboration that the research will prepare them for. “We need to be very vigilant and refer patients to a specialist in the future if we see an issue, and then tell the specialist what we want them to do.”
Other students highlighted the importance of exposure to a robust clinical environment and early career research skills. Tucker De Sanctis (CDMI ’25) said, “In the ever-evolving world of healthcare, it is a privilege to be exposed to such a strong clinical teaching environment, and to be at the forefront of change.” Tucker added, “This research program gives students the opportunity to obtain powerful research skills at an early stage in their career. This helps to shape the system of thinking as we progress through our clinical journey and into our full-time career.”
Kelsey Lloyd (CDMI ‘26) said, “I think this program is a great way to learn about a whole different side of dentistry that I wasn’t even really aware of until starting the program.” She added, “I never thought that as a practicing dentist I would carry on with research after graduation.”
Melissa Hsu (CDMI ’26) stated, “I was fascinated by the topic and wanted to further explore the intersection of the oral microbiome and gastrointestinal disorders. One of the reasons I decided to pursue dentistry is the preventative aspect in identifying signs or risk factors for inflammation of oral disease before its full-fledged onset and having the opportunity to educate and empower patients to take control over their health.”
Faris Ziyad (CDMI ’26) said, “The outcome of this research could change the way we practice dentistry, and there could be areas of improvement in the dental field. I hope that not only will I continue to have a deeper understanding of all aspects of healthcare, but also continue to keep up with research that takes place in the dental field.”
Research is an integral aspect of the Midwestern University educational experience. Dr. Kanjirath expressed a desire for students to find reassurance in their ability to seek answers to any questions that may arise. “By engaging in research, students not only contribute significantly to the profession but also gain the expertise to navigate and address inquiries in their chosen field.”
Midwestern University offers Doctor of Dental Medicine degree programs in Downers Grove and Glendale.