Research News

Decades-long partnership led to multimillion-dollar dental products

Robert Genco and Yasuhiro Katsuragiin the lab

UB faculty member Robert Genco (left) has had a nearly 40-year relationship with the Sunstar Group. Pictured with Genco in the lab is Yasuhiro Katsuragi, executive director of Sunstar Oral Care Research and Development. Photo: Douglas Levere

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published August 8, 2018

“At a university, you get rewarded mainly for publication; you don’t often get rewarded for application.”
Robert Genco, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Oral Biology, Periodontics and Microbiology

Walk into a drugstore to purchase a toothbrush or dental floss and you’re likely to come across the GUM brand, a leading group of oral health care products influenced by decades of UB research.

For nearly 40 years, the School of Dental Medicine and the Sunstar Group, which produces GUM brand products, have partnered on a fellowship training program that sends Sunstar scientists more than 6,000 miles from Japan to Buffalo to conduct research under UB faculty member Robert Genco, lauded by the Journal of Dental Research as the “father of oral science.”

The result: dozens of papers published in prestigious academic journals and the commercialization of 10 oral health care products that range from new toothpastes to soy calcium tablets that help ward off osteoporosis.

The union, which began in 1979, has continued far longer than the typical one- or two-year pact between a university and corporation to perform clinical trials, says Genco.

Through the fellowship, Sunstar scientists train under Genco for two years, completing fundamental research of mutual interest. They return to Japan with concepts to expand upon for the development of products.

“At a university, you get rewarded mainly for publication; you don’t often get rewarded for application,” says Genco, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Oral Biology, Periodontics and Microbiology, and former director of the UB Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach.

“On a spectrum of one-to-10 — one being the most fundamental and 10 being a product on the market — universities go up to three and companies take research from four-to-10.

“As health care providers and scientists,” he continues, “we carry out the necessary, fundamental research to establish the basis for therapy or prevention, but we shouldn’t stop there. We should then collaborate with industry to develop the products that reach patients.”

Among the products created through the partnership are Periocheck, a detection kit for periodontitis-causing bacteria, and Periocline, the world’s first periodontal ointment for treating periodontitis.

The formation in 1989 of the GUM brand, a line of products aimed at fighting periodontal, or gum disease using antibacterial ingredients, was largely influenced by Sunstar’s work with Genco and their joint interest in periodontal disease.

The start of a friendship

Today, the GUM brand is the top oral health care brand for toothpaste and mouthwash in Japan. Sunstar also manufactures and provides various health care products focused on oral and systemic health in more than 90 countries.

The company’s interest in systemic health increased when former Sunstar CEO Hiroo Kaneda, son of the company’s founder Kunio Kaneda, was diagnosed with diabetes. He believed gum disease had an effect on overall health.

It was through a friend, a faculty member in the School of Dental Medicine, that Kaneda was introduced to Genco, an emerging researcher who shared a similar hypothesis on the effects of periodontal disease.

“Medicine and dentistry separated years ago, and that’s unfortunate because the professions, as well as the population, feel that they are separate entities and there is little connection between the two. But there is a connection, and probably the best example of the connection is with diabetes,” says Genco.

Genco’s early research focused on the connection between diabetes and periodontal disease. His work determined that patients with diabetes had worsened periodontal disease. However, at the suggestion of Kaneda, Genco looked into the inverse relationship and made the discovery that the effects are a two-way street, as each disease has a negative impact on the other.

He has since studied the effects of periodontal disease on several systemic conditions, and linked gum disease to heart disease, stroke and oral, breast and pancreatic cancers.

“One key paper in Dr. Genco’s work on the correlation between diabetes and periodontal disease is like a bible for people who study periodontal and systemic interactions,” says Yasuhiro Katsuragi, executive director of Sunstar Oral Care Research and Development.

The study of 1,200 participants found diabetes, smoking and low calcium in the diet are risk factors for periodontal disease.

School of Dental Medicine Dean Joseph J. Zambon adds that one thing that Genco doesn’t get enough credit for is his role in identifying “the true prevalence of periodontitis in the United States.”

“Prior to the 2009-12 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, only about half of the teeth in the thousands of people participating in the survey were evaluated for periodontal disease,” Zambon says. “Dr. Genco and his colleagues were instrumental in changing the 2009-12 and subsequent surveys to examine all teeth. As a result, they found that about twice as many people have periodontal disease as previously thought.”

The new forefront: Your gut

Due to the impact of Genco’s research and their shared interests, Kaneda decided to invest in training for his scientists at UB.

Under the fellowship, Sunstar periodically sends one scientist to Buffalo for two years to train under Genco and other UB scientists, and perform fundamental research on periodontal disease. In fact, Katsuragi was the fourth fellow of the program.

To date, 13 fellows have travelled to UB, including two scientists who began fellowships in July. The new additions mark the first time in the program’s history that multiple scientists are training at the university.

“Sunstar has the long-term view,” Genco explains. “They’re not hurrying the process and they have the patience to support fundamental research that might result in a product down the line. That is a part of why the partnership has lasted so long.”

New fellows train at the UB Microbiome Center, where Genco serves as director.

The microbiome, says Genco, who is also chair of Sunstar America’s Scientific Advisory Panel, is the new forefront of microbiology. Rather than grow plates of bacteria for study, scientists can now use genetic sequencing, allowing researchers to perform large studies that were once not feasible.

“The data from one sample run generates six gigabytes of data. If you were to make that into a textbook and lay it flat, it would span 60 yards. And we run two to three runs a week,” says Genco. “In the last three years, we’ve uncovered details about many groups of bacteria that were not appreciated before.”

UB and Sunstar scientists are currently examining the effect of periodontal disease on the gut microbiome. Preliminary results have found that when gum disease is present, inflammation-causing microbes begin to appear in the stomach. Their hunch: They reach the gut through the nearly two liters of saliva swallowed each day.

A vaccine for periodontal disease is another area of interest, says Katsuragi. However, developing a vaccination for bacteria is far more difficult than doing so for a virus and could ultimately strengthen the infection, Genco notes.

To continue the work, Sunstar recently extended a five-year, $4.5 million grant for their scientists to complete research at the Microbiome Center.

“Why Buffalo?” Katsuragi asks. “Dr. Genco’s personality, humanity and hospitality. That’s the reason why we follow and trust him. That’s the reason why an almost 40-year relationship should be kept between Sunstar and UB.”