As the winner of the 2024 International Association for Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research (IADR) Distinguished Scientist Young Investigator Award, Assoc Prof Gustavo Nascimento was recognised for his dedication and remarkable contributions to dental research on 13 Mar 2024 in New Orleans, US, at the 102nd General Session of the IADR.

This includes publishing over 160 peer-reviewed articles, serving as a reviewer for 65 international journals, and obtaining more than S$1.5m in grants in his 16-year-long career since graduating with a DDS from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul of his home country of Brazil.

With a PhD in oral epidemiology, Assoc Prof Nascimento investigates the relationship between oral and systemic diseases as the core focus of his research. Based in Singapore, he holds appointments as an Assoc Prof of the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School and principal investigator of the National Dental Research Institute Singapore (NDRIS) and National Dental Centre Singapore (NDCS).

Assoc Prof Nascimento is currently engaged in research such as the establishment of the NDCS oral disease registry (ODR), an ongoing project to leverage big data in investigating the relationship between oral health and systemic health through the entire SingHealth cluster, comprising four hospitals, three community hospitals, five national specialists centres and eight polyclinics.

While the prestige of these awards and projects represents proud moments for Assoc Prof Nascimento, he is equally reminded of the hard work involved behind the scenes. He hopes that this milestone in his career inspires others. “I hope that this award can also inspire other researchers to aspire to greater achievements. For a public health guy from Brazil to be in the spotlight, I hope that they will see their goals as reachable regardless of their geographic or cultural background,” said Assoc Prof Nascimento.

“I must say that while a research path sometimes can be very lonely, this award is definitely a result of teamwork. I have had the privilege of working with excellent researchers as my mentors, colleagues, and students. While this prize was awarded to me, I must acknowledge that I could not have done it by myself if I did not have the wonderful partners I had along the way.”

Charting a Path from Brazil 
Supported by P&G Professional Oral Health, Crest Oral-B, the IADR Distinguished Scientist Young Investigator Award is designed to stimulate basic research in all dental research disciplines and is awarded to nominees within 10 years of completing their last terminal degree.

Assoc Prof Nascimento shared that his choice to venture into dental research was not a result of planning but rather of curiosity. “It was a very natural path while I was doing my dental school, as I was involved in research since the first year, which I grew curious about,” he said.

After graduating with his DDS and an “intense” experience during clinical training residency, Assoc Prof Nascimento felt disconnected from academia, which led him to pursue a PhD in oral epidemiology where he discovered his research interest. “I realised that it should not be a coincidence that the unprivileged have the heaviest burden of disease. This is the same with oral disease, so I wanted to understand why some people get sick and why some do not,” he explained.

He added: “During the time I started doing my PhD 12 years ago, we would still focus on dental disease as infectious disease, where you treat the bacteria as a solution for dental disease. But when I started one of the studies within my PhD, we showed that irrespective of the bacteria, if you accumulate health detrimental behaviours, you will increase the risk of periodontitis regardless of the frequency of toothbrushing.”

The paradigm shift of dental diseases from an infectious disease to a noncommunicable disease and the understanding of it as a similar disease to diabetes or cardiovascular disease is one of the proudest contributions of Assoc Prof Nascimento’s research to date.

Since winning the distinguished award, Assoc Prof Nascimento has noticed an uptick in attention to his work, which he hopes will open more opportunities and visibility in his field of research. He added that while the field today is more open to accepting oral disease as a chronic disease, the treatment for oral diseases is still largely based on scaling and removing plaque.

“I do hope that with my current and future research, we can place the dentist beyond a technical role and as part of a multidisciplinary team of health professionals to treat patients. Dental treatment can be isolated in the sense that we have a difficult time reaching out to other professionals, so I do hope that we can expand our horizons,” said Assoc Prof Nascimento.

As the 2024 IADR Distinguished Scientist Young Investigator, Assoc Prof Nascimento has also been named to the IADR board of directors as the Young Investigator Representative on a two-year term lasting till March 2026. With this seat, Assoc Prof Nascimento has been allocated to the strategic planning committee and will assume responsibilities such as judging recipients for the next edition of the awards.

Having spent time in South America, North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia across his career, Assoc Prof Nascimento incorporates his exposure into his outlook as a researcher and professional.

“I will try to advocate for a very inclusive organisation, meaning to push focus on regions that somehow have been neglected. It is easy for an organisation to be focused on the regional interests where its members originate, but I believe the organisation should represent everyone. I will try to advocate for more representation and think that IADR is ready to embrace the diversity of everyone,” he said.

In Asia, one particular issue he highlighted was the impact of ageing on oral health.

“I think that, on the one hand, it is a challenge because it is probably going to be one of the first regions in the world to have a super-aged society. On the other hand, it offers possibilities to research this unexplored topic, and I hope that the region can take advantage of that and actually lead our research in that direction. I think that the world is actually looking to Asia for directions regarding how it handles the challenges that might arise,” he said.

Moreover, Assoc Prof Nascimento looks towards the Asian landscape as a potential place to pioneer innovative solutions. “I think that Asia is ahead of the world in applying innovation in research. In Asia, I was challenged to go one step further beyond just publishing papers and evaluating the impact of research on the population.

It is undeniable that Asia will become the most powerful region in the world, and that will not be an exception in terms of research.”

Assoc Prof Nascimento stresses that research that might not be immediately applicable or commercialised such as basic laboratory research, is pivotal to establishing a foundation for future research and discoveries. In fact, most basic research does not translate into products but helps explain the world around us. However, even the discovery of some molecules may take several years to reach the market.

He cited the example of Ozempic, a popular anti-diabetic and anti-obesity medicine commercialised in 2016. Its economic impact contributed to the growth of its manufacturer, Novo Nordisk, to become the most valuable company in Europe at the time of writing. The company’s synthetic version of the glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), which the medicine is based on, was discovered over 40 years ago.

Sharing his advice for other professionals pursuing research, Assoc Prof Nascimento highlights the wisdom in being open. “I am very glad that I have always been able to find trustworthy partners that made my journey more pleasant. These are mentors, colleagues, and students who inspire me to be a better professional and researcher. I think it is important to be open to learning from our own mistakes and the mistakes the others have made,” he said.

He added: “Of course, one must deal with frustrations. To restart, change direction, or throw away many months or even years of research because the hypothesis does not hold or things go wrong is not an easy task. However, research can also be very rewarding, mentoring students and seeing the results of research where policies, protocols or clinical practice are changed to improve people's oral health. You have to be open to dealing with all of it.”

For professionals who do not see themselves in the academic environment, Assoc Prof Nascimento believes that to be the best clinician, one must be able to incorporate research into what they are doing. “We know that the one-size-fits-all approach does not hold anymore. We must provide individual care to every single patient sitting in our chair. To be able to do that, you have to be updated.”

Assoc Prof Nascimento concluded: “Research is very tough, but resilience is a key word. Look for opportunities and partners. The world is ‘small’ and globalised, and there is always a place for everyone. If you do not find partners in your city, go beyond borders. Try to reach out to people who are thinking closely about what you are doing. I have partners with whom I have been collaborating for many years, and I only met this year at IADR.”

To view a pdf copy of the feature from Dental Asia click here