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First Two Grants for U's New School of Dentistry Will Focus on Drug Addiction, Pain Regulation and Reward Systems


(SALT LAKE CITY)—As the new University of Utah School of Dentistry readies to open the doors to its first four-year class in the fall of 2013, the program has landed more than $5 million in two grants: one focused on drug addiction and a second to study systems involved in pain regulation and reward functions in the brain.

Glen R. Hanson, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor and associate dean for research and faculty and lead investigator on the reward/pain grant, says research is a priority for the school. "These first two grants are a beginning," he says. "We want to be very competitive in getting grants, and we're very interested in collaborating with other schools and programs on campus."

An area Hanson believes is important for upcoming dentists and all other health care providers is addressed by a five-year, $3.75 million grant from the federal agencies of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): recognizing and treating the costly problem of drug addiction, particularly through the misuse of prescription medications. "One of the biggest issues for prescription abuse is pain medications," Hanson says. "We feel strongly that dentists and other health care professionals should be trained in identifying and working with people with substance abuse problems."

The grant, led by Barbara Sullivan, Ph.D., associate director of the U of U's Utah Addiction Center, provides money to set up an Addiction Technology Transfer Center (ATTC). The ATTC will cover a six-state region: Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

The center's multifaceted mission includes providing technical assistance and educating clinical supervisors, addiction counselors, physicians, dentists, nurses, and others to recognize when someone has an addiction problem; assessing the training and workforce development needs for addressing addiction problems in each of the six states; and promoting awareness and use of evidence-based practices for counselors and health care providers. The ATTC also will train counselors and providers to effectively work with military families and people affected by Hepatitis C, and brain and other traumas who have addiction problems.

"The workforce in addiction counseling is aging, and we're going to focus on workforce development and helping people who work in the addiction field get access to information on best practices," Sullivan says.

The second grant, $1.5 million for five years from the National Institutes of Health, will allow Hanson to study neuropeptides systems in the brain and their relation to reward mechanisms and pain. Neuropeptides are small protein-like molecules that brain cells use to communicate, and they appear to be important in regulating pain and reward perception and in affecting particular brain functions such as learning, memory, food intake, and analgesia, according to Hanson.

Other areas that Hanson anticipates the School of Dentistry will investigate include oral pathology, genetics, and the links between periodontal disease and medical problems such as heart disease and stroke.

Hanson is a professor pharmacology and toxicology and has a co-appointment in the College of Pharmacy.

Students in the dental school will share classroom space with medical and nursing students until late 2014, when a 70,000-square-foot-building will be completed to house the program. The building will be called the Ray and Tye Noorda Oral Health Sciences Building, in honor of a generous $30 million donation from Tye Noorda and her children. Ray Noorda, who died in 2006, founded Novell software company in the 1980s.