USC University of Southern California

Joining Forces for Faces

A unique collaboration between Childrens Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) and the USC School of Dentistry Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology (CCMB) helps bridge the gap between the bedside and the research bench for children with craniofacial defects.

The partnership includes Mark Urata, director of the CHLA Division of Plastic Surgery He is currently director of Craniofacial and Pediatric Plastic Surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and co-director of the Cleft Team at Shriner’s Hospital in Los Angeles; Pedro Sanchez, a geneticist and director of CHLA’s craniofacial genetics; and Yang Chai, CCMB director. The trio has met weekly at CCMB for more than five years to bring research and clinical perspectives together, Urata says.

“We use different tools to achieve the same goal; we all need to collaborate and depend on one other,” he says. “This cooperation helps us to think about what we’re doing in the clinic in a much more biological sense.”

The meetings include lab presentations on the latest CCMB research news and patient case descriptions by CHLA doctors, forming what Chai calls “a marriage of basic and clinical science” between two of the nation’s top craniofacial centers. For instance, when Urata and Sanchez describe the symptoms and phenotypes of patients they see in the clinic, CCMB researchers take a closer look at their work, including animal models such as mice, and can identify similarities or possible genetic links.

“We all get a better understanding of what we’re dealing with,” Urata says.

Sanchez says that parents of children with craniofacial defects sometimes feel they are somehow at fault for the child’s condition. But, using CCMB research as evidence, CHLA Craniofacial and Cleft Center physicians can explain how genetic factors heavily influence craniofacial development, helping putting parents’ minds at ease.

While some environmental factors, such as drinking or smoking during pregnancy, can increase the risk for a cleft palate or other defect, “most of the time the parents are no more to blame for the child’s craniofacial defect than they are to blame for the child’s gender,” Sanchez says.

Chai says he hopes that the partnership between CCMB and CHLA—one of the first of its kind—will eventually be replicated throughout the world by other prominent research centers and hospitals. Basic scientists and clinical professionals working together will accomplish much more than they ever could by themselves, he says, and the exposure to clinical cases—including pictures of craniofacial patients posted around the lab—also helps remind researchers what they are working for.

“In between some of the tedious lab work, we get to see how we’re helping patients,” Chai says. “This kind of translational research and cooperation is the future.”