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Periodontist brings global perspective to dental school

By Carolyn Pennington - August 29, 2005

As he neared his high school graduation in Genova, Italy, Maurizio Tonetti was wrestling with a difficult decision.

He had not one major interest in his life, but three: astrophysics, diplomacy, and dentistry. The one he chose to pursue in college would launch a career path he would likely follow for the rest of his life.

He chose dentistry.

“In the end, I was practical. Seeing that my father and grandfather were dentists, I knew I would be assured of a job!” he says.

Dr. Tonetti, professor and chair of the Division of Periodontology and head of the Department of Oral Health and Diagnostic Sciences at the School of Dental Medicine, says he hasn’t regretted his decision. He says his job incorporates his other interests: his research helps satisfy his thirst for scientific exploration and being head of department often calls for his diplomatic talents.

Tonetti brings a global perspective to the Health Center, having professional experience in four different countries – the United States, Italy, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

“We’re thrilled to have him here,” says Peter J. Robinson, dean of the dental school, who had conducted two world-wide talent searches before he learned that Tonetti might be available. “He has an incredible reputation among his peers, no one can compare in the clinical research area.”

Recently Tonetti was selected to receive the prestigious Clinical Research Award from the American Academy of Periodontology.

He was recognized for his work linking periodontitis, a chronic infection that affects more than 10 percent of adults, and chronic inflammatory diseases such as atherosclerosis, stroke, heart attacks, and the metabolic control of diabetes, osteopenia, and osteoporosis.

During clinical trials, Tonetti showed that intensively treating severe periodontitis not only improved the condition of the patient’s gums, it decreased inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein and interleukin-6. These markers have been associated with cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

“These treatment studies indicate the relevance of oral health goes beyond the obvious benefits of a pleasing smile, good chewing function, and speech,” says Tonetti. “Oral health is an integral component of the overall health and well being of our population and needs to be recognized as such.”

Before accepting the job at the Health Center, Tonetti was professor and head of the Department of Periodontology at University College London, where he worked within the British National Health Service.

Dr. Maurizio Tonetti, a leading periodontist, is the new chair of the Department of Oral Health and Diagnostic Sciences at the School of Dental Medicine.
Dr. Maurizio Tonetti, a leading periodontist, is the new chair of the Department of Oral Health and Diagnostic Sciences at the School of Dental Medicine.
Photo by Peter Morenus

Tonetti tapped his huge caseload – more than 8,000 patients a year – to help with his clinical research. He could treat more patients and at the same time conduct large-scale studies that produced significant findings. During his time in London, he won several research awards, including the International Association of Dental Research Prize and the Henry Goldman Research Prize in Periodontology.

He was offered opportunities in Europe and other places in the United States, but UConn’s ranking as the number one dental school in the country convinced him this was the place to be. “It immediately rose to the top of my list,” says Tonetti.

He was also impressed at the integration of the dental and medical schools.

“The dental school is a critical component of the Health Center and that is clearly expressed by the leadership. Here at UConn, it is ‘the School of Dental Medicine,’ not a ‘school of dentistry.’ It is more than just a difference in names – it makes a huge difference in the philosophy of the schools. It goes back to European traditions that dentistry is a‘medical specialty,’ rather than just some technique practiced by barbers!”

Tonetti is now part of the triumvirate that governs the dental school. The recent reorganization of the school divided it into three new departments. Tonetti heads the Department of Oral Health and Diagnostic Sciences; Dr. Ravindra Nanda is in charge of the Department of Orthodontics, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Pediatric Dentistry, and Advanced Education in General Dentistry; and Dr. Thomas Taylor leads the Department of Oral Rehabilitation, Biomaterials, and Skeletal Development.

Taylor says Tonetti is “one of the most famous periodontists in the world. It was an absolute coup that we were able to recruit him. He will make the rest of us better simply by our association with him.”

Tonetti says he wants to improve patient care, while increasing the emphasis on clinical research programs.

“The two are intertwined,” he says. “Patient care benefits if you are at the forefront of new technologies and treatments. And there’s a better chance of adopting the newest innovations if you are the ones who are actually developing it.”

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