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Periodontist/researcher’s work recognized with Gold Medal award

September 21, 2015

By Michelle Manchir

Photo of Steven Offenbacher
Dr. Offenbacher

Dr. Steven Offenbacher calls clinical research a “team sport.”

His groundbreaking research about the relationships between periodontal disease and abnormal pregnancy outcomes, he said, is a result of working alongside other great scientists.

“I have always been inspired and encouraged by people who were smarter and more knowledgeable than I,” he told the ADA News.

While deflecting self-praise, he admits that he could, maybe, be viewed as “the quarterback” of his research teams.

Others agree with him.

Dr. Offenbacher in August was named the 2015 winner of the Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Dental Research. The ADA Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Dental Research, sponsored by Church & Dwight, was established in 1985 and is presented once every three years to honor individuals who contribute to the advancement of the dental profession or who help improve the oral health of the community through basic or clinical research.

The honoree receives $25,000 and a gold medallion. Additionally, the recipient serves a three-year term on the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs.

Dr. Offenbacher will receive the honor Nov. 5 during a formal presentation at ADA 2015 — America’s Dental Meeting in Washington, D.C.

The selection committee cited Dr. Offenbacher’s multidisciplinary, collaborative approach to research that engages specialties outside of dentistry. They also cited his groundbreaking and pioneering work showing the relationships between periodontal disease and adverse pregnancy outcomes and periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease.

“I have deeply admired Dr. Offenbacher and his research throughout my career,” said ADA President Maxine Feinberg. “His work on the oral-systemic health connection was game-changing. So much of what we’re discussing at the ADA today about collaboration with other health care providers is directly related to his work. His work proved what dentists knew anecdotally for generations.”

Furthermore, Dr. Offenbacher’s work exemplifies what the Gold Medal Award recognizes: life-long careers and achievements that have indelibly improved both oral care and overall health care throughout the world, said Tim Seitter, vice president of oral care at Church & Dwight.

“He is an outstanding scientist, educator, mentor and still practices dentistry. It is an absolute privilege for Church & Dwight to honor the distinguished career of Dr. Offenbacher,” Mr. Seitter said.

Dr. Offenbacher’s remarkable list of achievements goes on. Some of his discoveries were included in the first and only U.S. surgeon general’s report on oral health in 2000. His research in more than 400 publications has been cited more than 12,000 times and he has been awarded millions of dollars in grant funding.

Dr. Jane Weintraub, dean and alumni distinguished professor at UNC who nominated Dr. Offenbacher, credits him with putting the University of North Carolina, where he works now, “on the map” as being the center for research showing the connections between oral and systemic health.

Dr. Offenbacher is currently the chair of periodontology at UNC, where he initiated the university’s General and Oral Health Center that supports all types of clinical research.

Furthermore, he’s established himself at the school as a great mentor to students at all levels, according to Dr. Weintraub, which has been a focus of his career in recent years. His students have gone on to earn numerous recognitions, including the American Academy of Periodontology Educator Scholarship Award.

“He is able to communicate his complex work in an easy to understand fashion that makes him a great educator whether talking to his peer scientists or a lay audience,” Dr. Weintraub wrote in her nomination letter.

Dr. Offenbacher has earned other significant recognitions. They include the AAP Distinguished Scientist Award, the AAP Educator Award for Outstanding Teaching and Mentoring in Periodontics and, in 2006, the ADA Norton M. Ross Award for Excellence in Clinical Research.

For that award, Dr. Offenbacher’s research connecting oral infections and systemic medical disorders was sited, as was his research as the force behind a major insurance carrier’s decision to cover periodontal scaling and root planning for pregnant women at risk for pregnancy gingivitis.

Since he received 2006 award, Dr. Offenbacher said he’s been exploring the genetic basis of periodontal disease and basic mechanisms of disease to understand why some patients are at high risk for periodontal disease and systemic problems.

He’s not planning to slow down too soon, either, he said, adding that he is “ultimately interested in providing the dental professional with better tools to identify patients at risk for periodontal disease.”

While research earned him the Gold Medal Award, Dr. Offenbacher said he still practices dentistry once a week in the UNC dental faculty practice.

“I am very proud to be a dentist,” he said. “I am a dentist and periodontist first and scientist second. I feel very strongly that dentistry is a noble profession in which we serve as physicians of the oral cavity.”

Dr. Offenbacher, who worked his way through college and dental school as a union guitarist, said his experiences on stage helped him prepare for a life of talking with others in the clinic, classroom and laboratory.

Outside of work, he spends time traveling with his wife, Julie, who recently retired from IBM. He has one son in college and one who just graduated. According to Dr. Weintraub, his car’s license plate says “Top Gum.”

When he got the call this summer from Dr. Feinberg that he was the Gold Medal honoree, he said he was “uncharacteristically speechless.”

“This award is like the actors’ lifetime achievement award that is given at the Oscars. I know that this is a signal from my peers that I am now an old guy who has somehow managed to have an impact on our profession during my career,” he said.