Advancing research and education to push forward oral health excellence

Since joining the School of Dental Medicine faculty in 2019, Sinem Esra Sahingur has launched two new master’s programs, expanded student research, and continued to pursue her own research program on immune regulation.

Group of seven scientists stand in a window-lined hallway

Sinem Esra Sahingur can’t recall a time when academia wasn’t the road she planned to follow.

Her father was a physician and an academician who died when Sahingur was 11. “I was always inspired by him and his legacy,” she says. “But my mom was the heart and driving force both for me and my sister all along with her unconditional love, caring, and guidance. She taught us how to be resilient and always encouraged us to chase our dreams.”

Not only did Sahingur fulfill those dreams—she is a board-certified periodontist and a full-time faculty member in Penn’s School of Dental Medicine with a rigorous research program—but she has also taken her career on a parallel path, helping lead the next generation of scientists- and clinicians-to-be in pursuing their professional goals.

With nearly 20 years of experience as an accomplished scientist, academic leader, and exemplary educator, Sahingur joined Penn Dental Medicine faculty as the school’s first associate dean of graduate studies and student research in 2019. Since then, she has launched two master’s programs, initiated centralized online admissions for graduate programs, implemented the first hybrid on-line curriculum, and significantly expanded student research participation and scholarly output.

“It’s been challenging to operate in a new institution and build partnerships during a very disruptive pandemic, but it’s so rewarding, both to see our students succeeding and to work with my research team to keep advancing science,” she says.

Launching new opportunities

In addition to providing oversight and strategic vision for the already existing graduate-degree programs in Penn Dental Medicine, Sahingur was charged upon arriving at Penn with getting new programs off the ground. Within two years of her appointment and working with multiple stakeholders, she successfully led the efforts to launch two new programs, the Master of Oral Health Sciences (MOHS) and the Master of Advanced Dental Studies (MADS).

scientists present information on a screen to a group of six fellow scientists in an office
Tony Rattanaprukskul, a resident in the Sahingur lab, presents research on immune regulation during a lab meeting of the group. Lab members also include (from left) lab manager Xia Juan, second-year dental student Megan Hung, fourth-year Camille Banson, third-year Shelling, Sahingur, and postdoc S.M. Ziauddin.

The MOHS program can be thought of as two distinct entities. One track caters to college graduates who want to enhance their applications to dental school or other health care career tracks. A second is offered for dentists trained outside the United States to bolster their applications to U.S. dental schools. The MOHS pre-dental track launched in fall 2020, with the first students admitted in fall 2021. The first class of MOHS non-U.S. trained dentist track was admitted in fall 2022.

“Dental and medical school admission is very competitive so students pursue advanced educational opportunities to enhance their knowledge base and overall candidate profile,” Sahingur says. In both tracks within the MOHS program, distinct curricula are integrated with that of the current dental students and include both classroom learning and clinical experiences, culminating in a rigorous capstone research project.

“We are thrilled to hear about the success stories of our MOHS inaugural class,” says Sahingur. “Of the three in the first MOHS pre-dental cohort, all have been admitted to dental schools.”

Rachel Wade, for example, who was a member of the inaugural class of the MOHS pre-dental track, is now a first-year dental student at Boston University’s Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine. She says the program was “a great way to bridge the gap between undergraduate and dental school education.”

The second program Sahingur launched, MADS, is a first-of-its-kind hybrid offering among dental schools that gives dentists the chance to deepen their knowledge of a particular clinical discipline, from pediatric dentistry to prosthodontics. Composed of both online instruction and in-person clinical experience on Penn’s campus, students in the program include dentists applying for residency programs, internationally trained dentists whose home countries require a master’s degree to recognize their specialty, or other dentists hoping to refresh their knowledge of their chosen field. MADS launched in spring of 2022, admitting the first class in August, with a second cohort recently welcomed into the program last month.

“With the pandemic, we have all become more open to the idea of online and hybrid education,” she says. “MADS helps us reach a wide range of students globally and provide a quality education without the need for them to be fully on-campus. Synchronous offerings allow the students to join our residents in classes and seminars and be part of the Penn community. The asynchronous online component makes it convenient and effective too. So far, the student and faculty experiences have been positive.”

Moving these new initiatives forward required working with different groups and offices within the school and across the campus. The pandemic made this more challenging, especially as Sahingur was only a few months into her tenure at Penn when many of the campus operations were suspended in March 2020. Yet, she was able to build an effective communication line and organizational structure to getting the programs up and running.

“I am happy that, as a team, we have been able to expand our educational offerings, attract diverse groups of students into our community, and increase Penn Dental presence globally. We continuously monitor student and faculty experiences in all our graduate programs and implement changes as needed.”

Growing outlets for research

Simply keeping up with coursework and clinical requirements can present a full plate for dental students, yet many also take advantage of Penn’s prowess in research while they are here. In addition to her responsibilities on the administrative side for graduate education, Sahingur also oversees student research programs that are available to dental students during their training.

scientist in scrubs pipets a liquid in a lab with many beaker drying on a rack over a sink
Benjamin Shelling, a third-year dental student, conducts research in Sahingur’s lab between his coursework and clinical experiences. Sahingur has expanded opportunities for students across the dental school to pursue research alongside their studies.

Through seeking more fundraising to support student research and implementing new strategies for making students aware of research and mentorship opportunities and continuous guidance, she’s seen a rapid and multiple fold increase in participation, publications, and success in receiving awards and fellowships among dental students.

“We’re trying to inspire our students with the excitement of research and innovation and the pursuit of academic careers,” she says.

Sahingur has worked with faculty and students to find ways for them to engage in the research process, writing reviews and presentations instead of being in the lab. Post-pandemic, students are back in labs and clinics, actively participating in research and presenting and publishing on their findings.

“We also provide stipends to go to conferences to present their data,” she says. “We want to do everything we can to encourage our students to continue with research that interests them.”

Support from alumni has been instrumental in advancing student research. In summer 2021, working closely with the institutional advancement team and building strong relationships, Sahingur established Penn Dental Medicine’s first funding stream dedicated to support student research programs, the Dr. Gail Schupak Funds.

“Certainly, all these initiatives would not come to fruition without the vision and support of our dean, Dr. Mark Wolff,” says Sahingur.

Racking up new insights in the lab 

True to her early love of science and the pursuit of new knowledge, Sahingur has not let her own research and lab’s work fall to the wayside as she pours time into her administrative duties. When she came to Penn from Virginia Commonwealth University, she brought with her three lab members, who have continued advancing studies in host-microbiome interactions and immunology. They, along with new students from across all levels of Penn have begun contributing to the group’s output.

“We’re interested in how inflammation is initiated, regulated, and resolved,” Sahingur says.

More specifically, her research clarifies the cellular and molecular mechanisms increasing susceptibility for periodontal diseases and the links between oral and systemic health issues. Periodontal diseases are chronic inflammatory conditions of the gums that result from an inappropriate response to microbial invasion. If not treated, they can lead to destruction of bone and soft tissue, eventually causing tooth loss. Persistent oral inflammation is also associated with several other conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, pregnancy complications, arthritis, and cancer.  

“The World Health Organization Global Oral Health Status Report estimated that severe periodontal diseases affect around 19% of the global adult population, representing more than 1 billion cases worldwide,” Sahingur says. She and her team aim to find ways to prevent and cure these diseases, potentially improving the lives of millions.

Sahingur and her lab have done pioneering work in elucidating the workings of nucleic acid sensors, which can interact with other molecules in the cell to trigger inflammation. A second focus is the process of ubiquitination, whereby certain cellular products are tagged, or untagged, setting them up to either be degraded or to again, foster more inflammation.

Both are involved in the pathology of the oral disease periodontitis, which involves inflammation in the gums and leads to bone loss. And tying all this work together, Sahingur has begun to embark on investigations of how these processes intersect in aging.

In a recently published study in the Journal of Dental Research, Sahingur and colleagues reported on the findings of some of this area of work, specifically zeroing in on the contribution of Toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9), one of a class of receptors known for recognizing and instigating a defense against nucleic acids that may pose a threat to the body.

Using a mouse strain lacking TLR9, Sahingur’s group was able to examine its role closely, finding that animals lacking this sensor did not display the same age-associated inflammatory response (and associated bone loss) as a result of periodontal disease compared to mice with intact TLR9. Findings in human patients supported this discovery, as older patients with gum disease had higher expression of TLR9 compared to health controls.

“We know there’s a relationship between aging and periodontal disease, but we don’t know the mechanistic link,” she says. “We’ve found that engagement of TLR9 with nucleic acids can act as ‘danger signals’ to potentiate the inflammatory response. Now we’re working on therapeutics that might be able to obviate that inflammation.”

Working with both plant-based products and small molecules, Sahingur has done work to try to ameliorate some of these signs of inflammation and aging by blocking the activity of these signals. This translational approach is one she hopes to improve not only oral health but overall well-being as well.

Penn’s reputation as a research University was a big draw for Sahingur, and she’s hoping to continue growing connections.

“Future research success and innovation will depend on developing interdisciplinary collaborations,” Sahingur says.

Another direction for her lab’s research, in the connection between periodontal and liver diseases, has prompted her to form new connections with faculty in the Perelman School of Medicine. She’s also working with School of Engineering and Applied Science scientists on novel nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems.

“Penn is a world-renowned institution,” she says. “I’m excited to be supporting the incredible work being done here, in both the education and research missions. It is especially gratifying to interact and provide mentorship and opportunities for the next generation to reach their goals.”

Esra Sahingur in her office
Sahingur has worked with colleagues across Penn Dental Medicine to launch three master’s programs since arriving at Penn in 2019.