UConn School of Dental Medicine

Dental Researchers Attack Painful Chemo Side Effect

chemo patient

An estimated 400,000 U.S. patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy each year develop painful mouth sores known as oral mucositis. Researchers across UConn are attacking this common side effect from several angles, with one team working to understand the root causes of the ulcers and another developing a better way to treat them.

Cancer drugs break down the mucous membranes lining the mouth, called oral mucosa, inducing painful lesions that can cause difficulty talking, swallowing, and eating. The pain can become so severe that patients require feeding intravenously or through a stomach tube. Other risks to patients include slower healing, decreased resistance to infection, and general failure to thrive. Secondary infection and potentially life-threatening systemic sepsis have also been reported.

While the pain that oral mucositis causes is certainly of great concern, perhaps the most harmful impact occurs when patients are in such extreme agony that their attending physicians have no choice but to prescribe undesirable dose reductions or treatment breaks in cancer therapy.

One UConn School of Dental Medicine research team published in Springer Nature’s Microbiome the most comprehensive study to date about the patho-physiology of oral mucositis in humans due to the effects of chemotherapy.

The team, led by Dr. Patricia Diaz, associate professor in the Department of Oral Health and Diagnostic Sciences, found that patients who developed the most severe lesions showed suppression of beneficial mouth bacteria and outgrowth of harmful ones.

Further studies are needed to understand which specific microbiome components are detrimental and in what manner they affect the oral mucosa’s ability to withstand a chemotherapy challenge.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rajesh Lalla, professor of dental medicine, is collaborating with UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Diane J. Burgess, graduate student Tingting Li, and drug design firm Cellix Bio to develop a new, long-acting topical anesthetic that he hopes will someday replace current methods of treating oral mucositis.

The current first-line therapy at most U.S. hospitals is a mouth rinse containing the local anesthetic lidocaine, providing about 30 minutes of relief. The rinse numbs the entire mouth instead of focusing specifically on the sores, which poses safety concerns since it can inhibit the swallowing reflex. Patients are also often prescribed systemic opioids to treat the pain.

The team has developed an innovative formulation and novel patented compound that allows a long-acting topical anesthetic to be applied directly to sores. The researchers expect the more potent anesthetic should relieve pain for about four hours, eight times as long as the standard mouth rinse.
The compound also exhibits antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects naturally delivered by the medium chain fatty acid, which could reduce the severity of lesions from oral mucositis, says Lalla.

Lalla and his collaborators believe they are one to two years away from clinical trials in humans.

Forming Alliances to Build a Better Care Model

In her first year as dean of the UConn School of Dental Medicine, Dr. Sharon Gordon seeks to apply the concept of interprofessional learning to shape the future of health care.

Cloe Poisson, Copyright © 2019. Hartford Courant. Used with permission.
Cloe Poisson, Copyright © 2019. Hartford Courant. Used with permission.


As medicine moves toward an integrated approach to care, UConn’s new dental dean sees a greater role for dental medicine in the delivery of that care, and a strong foundation already in place to make that happen.

Dr. Sharon Gordon, who arrived from the East Carolina School of Dental Medicine last summer, says it’s part of what drew her to UConn: more broadly, the rich history of partnership between the medical and dental schools, but notably the basic sciences curriculum they share in the first two years, focusing on interprofessional training.

“We’re perfectly poised to move to the next steps, which would be providing clinical care together,” she says. “The idea is students moving into the clinics together, learning how to take care of patients together, so when they graduate they will be prepared for interprofessional practice.”

The evidence shows that more comprehensive care of the patient gives better health outcomes overall.

Health care financing already is trending toward a more holistic view of the patient and greater emphasis on outcomes; a next step is recognition of the connection between oral health and
overall health, Gordon says.

“Thinking about dentistry and where it is on the spectrum of reimbursement, if we don’t embrace that, we’re going to be left behind,” Gordon says. “But more importantly, the evidence shows that more comprehensive care of the patient gives better health outcomes overall.”

To help UConn Health get there, Gordon wants to continue building on the concept of students working in group-practice clusters in the clinic. A program fittingly known as CONNcept (Connecticut Comprehensive Education and Practice Team), established under the leadership of Gordon’s predecessor, Dr. R. Lamont “Monty” MacNeil, aims to simulate a true practice setting. As part of this, Gordon’s vision also includes incorporating nursing students, students from Tunxis Community College’s dental hygienist program, and, eventually, expanded-function dental assistants. Collectively, these disciplines can train together and, ultimately, practice together, improving patient outcomes through this new model of care.

UConn Dental Alumna Gives Back

Dr. Carolina Giraldo


UConn School of Dental Medicine alumna Dr. Carolina Giraldo ’95 has always persevered.

Born in Bogotá, Colombia, and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Giraldo and her older sister took care of themselves and their younger brother from an early age while their parents worked three jobs. Giraldo knew she’d have to work hard to be successful, juggling work and study to put herself through college and then dental school.

Now she’s paying it forward. Giraldo, who opened her own dental practice soon after earning her doctorate, recently made a $1 million planned gift to help students like herself. Giraldo established the Dr. Carolina Giraldo Scholarship in 2017 so dental students from underrepresented groups might have an easier time becoming dentists than she did.

“I want the minority population to grow in the field,” Giraldo says. “I want a bigger presence of women, of minorities, to get into the field and make a difference.”

Dr. Sarita Arteaga, the dental school’s associate dean for students, says scholarships like Giraldo’s help students with “the little things,” not just tuition.

“It also helps them to know that someone is investing in them,” she says. “They say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe somebody was in this position and not only wants to give back to the school, but wants to do the same thing for me.’”

To support the Dr. Carolina Giraldo Scholarship Fund, visit s.uconn.edu/giraldo.

UConn, JAX Confront Pain With First-In-State Consortium

illustration of older man holding back in pain


An estimated 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain — more than those affected by heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined, according to The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. How best to manage that pain in the face of a nationwide opioid crisis is the question on many practitioners’ minds.

The Connecticut Pain Consortium — a translational pain research and education collaboration between UConn Health, the UConn schools of Medicine and Nursing, and The Jackson Laboratory — aims to help answer it.

Given the broad range of research interests and funding opportunities related to pain, the founders envision that centers across the University and nearly every UConn school and college — particularly the schools of Dental Medicine and Pharmacy — will join the consortium to build mutually beneficial collaborations. Experts from Yale University and hospitals including Connecticut Children’s Medical Center will also be involved.

“There is a clear need for more basic and translational research on human pain and pain management,” says the Consortium’s director, mathematician and computational biologist Reinhard Laubenbacher, a joint faculty member at UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.

“And there is a critical unmet need for education and training of providers and patients. This is a great opportunity to deploy our capabilities in pain research and addiction together with our Connecticut partners in an exciting and much-needed statewide initiative.”

The Consortium, the first of its kind in the Connecticut medical community, will establish a portal for pain-related health care data and facilitate research collaborations that leverage state and national resources. It will aim to translate that research into cutting-edge pain management solutions and raise awareness of the many facets of pain, pain management, and potential related ramifications including opioid addiction. The Consortium will contribute to a curriculum on pain research and management for health care providers.

The launch is being funded by a $55,000 planning grant from the Mayday Fund, whose mission is to support projects that close the gap between knowledge and practice in the treatment of pain, to the UConn Foundation. The Consortium has also received support from the UConn Office of the Vice President for Research, the schools of Nursing and Medicine, and the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.

“This new consortium builds upon strengths already existing in the School of Medicine, with an existing core of faculty focused on pain research,” says Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of the School. “Thanks to this grant, we believe there will be numerous opportunities for advancement in the study and treatment of pain.”

A Dental Dean’s Legacy

Dr. R. Lamont “Monty” MacNeil reflects with pride on his 12 years as dean of the UConn School of Dental Medicine and looks forward with optimism at where the School will go from here.

“Looking back, it has been quite humbling to be the dean of a dental school with such a great national reputation and part of such a distinguished university,” says MacNeil, who soon plans to take a sabbatical but will return as a faculty member. “It has been a phenomenal experience and a privilege to work with the talented faculty, staff, and students here.”

MacNeil joined the Dental School as a graduate student in 1986 after six years in private practice. He took his first role on the School’s leadership team, as associate dean, in 1998 and was named dean in 2007.

Since then, he has shepherded the School through three perfect accreditation reviews and seen it rise in the ranks to number 11 in funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. The School was awarded the prestigious William J. Gies Award for Achievement in 2016, and MacNeil helped establish the cross-campus Biomedical Engineering Department in partnership with the UConn schools of Medicine and Engineering.

MacNeil also maximized Bioscience Connecticut funding to transform the physical infrastructure of the School with renovated academic areas, simulation training centers, state-of-the-art dental clinics, and advanced technology.

We should be the school testing new approaches and new models, being the leaders in this new world of collaborative health care.

“The physical renewal we have accomplished here lifts a heavy burden off the next generation of faculty and school leaders,” MacNeil says. “The focus can now be on attracting high-caliber people and supporting the talented people we already have to keep our school on the leading edge.”

MacNeil believes the School has a bright future. He foresees further growth in interprofessional training for students and residents and envisions a greater emphasis on how dentists can be part of patients’ broader primary care teams.

“We are the perfect place for such experimentation because of our integrated structure and our academic interests,” he says. “We should be the school testing new approaches and new models, being the leaders in this new world of collaborative health care. The key is looking beyond roadblocks and limitations and seeing the many opportunities that surround us and maximizing them.”

MacNeil will dedicate his sabbatical to his chairman of the board duties for the American Dental Education Association, which has more than 20,000 members across 76 U.S. and Canadian dental schools. MacNeil says he hopes to advance discussions on topics including reforming national dental licensure, encouraging student interest in academic careers, and expanding international dental education dialogue. The issues he’s most passionate about are innovating methods of assessing dental students and researching the benefits of integrating oral health care with primary medical care, efforts he says could have profound implications for dental education.

“My endpoint goal as dean was to leave the School in a better state than when I took office,” says MacNeil. “I am confident that has been accomplished. We are stronger than ever before, and I know we will keep pushing the boundaries of dental medicine to accomplish even more.”

Dr. R. Lamont Monty MacNeil

Dr. R. Lamont “Monty” MacNeil will end his 12-year tenure as dean of the UConn School of Dental Medicine in August and remain on the faculty. MacNeil has been on the School’s leadership team for 20 years.


UConn has announced that on Aug. 31 Dr. Sharon M. Gordon will become the next dental school dean and first woman to serve in the role. Gordon, a distinguished educator, clinician, and scientist, hails from East Carolina University’s School of Dental Medicine where she serves as associate dean for innovation and discovery and chair of the Department of Foundational Sciences

UConn Health Offers Largest Emergency Dental Service in CT

patient in dental chair

UConn Health sees an average of 60 dental emergencies in a 24-hour period.


Dental emergencies can strike at any time. That’s why UConn Health has offered around-the-clock coverage for dental emergencies since the early 1970s and recently opened a specialized patient room within the new emergency department at UConn John Dempsey Hospital.

“We have the largest dental emergency service in the state,” says Dr. Steven Lepowsky, senior associate dean for education and patient care at the UConn School of Dental Medicine. “The service exists to address a significant unmet need.”

Even those who receive regular dental care can face emergency situations at any time. On average, UConn Health sees nearly 60 dental emergencies in 24 hours. The most common are toothaches related
to a cavity, root canal, or abscess.

On weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., urgent dental care is provided by students and residents from the UConn School of Dental Medicine who staff UConn Health’s dental clinics under faculty supervision.

The training component makes the emergency dental service a crucial piece of the dental school’s academic mission.

The service exists to address a significant unmet need.

“It helps the students and residents build skills in terms of how to diagnose a problem quickly, identify the source of the problem, and provide care that immediately addresses someone’s needs,” Lepowsky says.
After 10 p.m., patients who present with a dental emergency are assessed by medical staff, who can bring in the dental resident on call, if necessary.

Although the hours are nothing new, the after-hours setting is.

The new room and dental chair “replicate a full dental operatory, so it expanded the scope of what we could offer on an emergency basis after hours,” Lepowsky says. “It’s a much more pleasant environment for the patient.”

It’s not, however, meant to replace primary dental care, according to Lepowsky.

Sometimes, after-hours care involves just relieving pain and sending the patient home, asking them to return in the morning when the dental clinics open for a specific dental treatment.

“You want someone to have an established relationship with a dental provider so there’s someone coordinating all their annual dental health care and maintenance needs,” Lepowsky says.

UConn Writes New Prescription for Medical Education

academic entrance, UConn Health Farmington CT
Inside UConn Health Farmington CT, rotunda

The exterior (Top) and interior (Bottom) of the new Academic Rotunda at UConn Health. Photo: Janine Gelineau


The class of 2020 is not only the largest in UConn School of Medicine history, it’s also the first to experience a newly launched, innovative curriculum to better prepare doctors for the rapidly changing health care landscape.

The new curriculum, known as MDelta — Making a Difference in Education, Learning, and Teaching Across the curriculum — is based on the principles of lifelong learning, patient-centered care, and collaborative teamwork.

A cutting-edge holistic assessment program provides time for students to evaluate their competencies as they reach milestones in their development.

“Medicine and the health care landscape is changing rapidly, with the explosion of clinical information and technology, the development of complex health care systems, a move from inpatient to outpatient care settings, and the rise of team science,” says Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of the UConn School of Medicine. “Our new curriculum is a platform to make our students the best possible future doctors and prepare them to be health care leaders,” he says.

Rather than traditional classroom lectures, the new curriculum relies heavily on team-based learning, in addition to anatomy dissection, virtual laboratory experiences (including the use of four Anatomage virtual anatomy tables), clinical practice, and simulation.

A novel course called VITALS — Vertically Integrated Teams Aligned in Learning and Scholarship — brings together teams of students from across all years of the medical school and professional schools, such as the UConn School of Dental Medicine, to learn together about health care policy, population health, ethics, and current events affecting local and global communities.

At the start of medical school, each student is assigned to a primary care physician in an outpatient practice at UConn Health or in the surrounding community across the state to follow the health of patients over three years. In addition, teams are assigned to a “Clinical Home” in one of UConn’s affiliate teaching hospitals to learn how to work in a health care system caring for a diverse population. These opportunities prepare students for more advanced clinical experiences — both inpatient and outpatient — later in medical school.

Thanks to the American Medical Association selecting UConn as a member of its Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium, students will also be trained in the electronic medical record.

“Early clinical and health system exposure is an integral part of the new curriculum, along with inter-professional activities,” says Dr. Suzanne Rose, senior associate dean for education at UConn’s medical school. “A cutting-edge holistic assessment program provides time for students to evaluate their competencies as they reach milestones in their development.”

And because of investments from UConn Health and the state of Connecticut through the Bioscience Connecticut initiative, the 100 medical and 49 dental students are also the first to learn in a new 17,000-square-foot facility featuring a renovated academic entrance and a brand-new, high-tech rotunda.

Honor Roll – Spring 2016

UConn John Dempsey Hospital earned an ‘A’ in patient safety for fall 2015 from premier nonprofit hospital safety advocate The Leapfrog Group.


Dr. Robert L. Trestman is a co-recipient of the 2016 Manfred S. Guttmacher Award from the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL) for his outstanding contributions to the literature of forensic psychiatry.


Dr. Pamela Moore was named Best Doctor in the Willimantic Chronicle’s 2015 Readers’ Choice Awards.


The UConn School of Dental Medicine was named winner of the 2016 William J. Gies Award for Outstanding Achievement by an Academic Dental Institution.


Reinhard C. Laubenbacher, Ph.D., of UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) for Genomic Medicine has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and co-editor of the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.


Dr. Bruce Strober and Dr. Jane Grant-Kels were honored with Presidential Citations by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on March 3.