USC University of Southern California

NIDCR MERIT Award Given to Dentistry’s Yang Chai

The prestigious Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research has been awarded to Yang Chai, Associate Dean of Research and Director of the Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

The MERIT Award is given in recognition of outstanding research productivity and high likelihood of continued success. Investigators cannot apply for the award; candidates are instead selected from the applications for competing renewal investigator-initiated research project (RO1) grants.

The award is designed to reduce administrative burden by providing long-term research support – up to ten years of funding – for investigators with a distinctly successful research record and significant impact in their field. This first segment of Chai’s MERIT Award, providing more than $2 million in research support, will extend to June 2014 and can be administratively renewed for another five years at that time.

“I’m very grateful for the NIDCR’s support; this award provides a phenomenal amount of security during a tough economic time where research support has been uncertain,” Chai said. “The MERIT Award supports work that’s high-risk but has the potential for very high return.”

With the support of the MERIT Award, Chai will continue his work into the possibility of prenatal nonsurgical rescue of cleft palate and other craniofacial birth defects, including the unlocking of the intricate cellular processes that guide the formation of the face and mouth. His goal is to one day know what factors lead to certain oral and facial birth defects, what measures to take to prevent them, and how to reverse them before birth, saving children from complex surgeries and the other difficulties that come with such malformations.

Chai has a long history of strong support from the NIDCR, a part of the National Institutes of Health. Since 1999, he has been the lead investigator on NIDCR grants totaling over $14 million, and he is known worldwide for his groundbreaking research and collaboration in numerous aspects of craniofacial genetics and development.

Just a few of his many scientific accomplishments include a leading role in the creation of a comprehensive database of facial genetics; important discoveries regarding the complex cell signaling pathways that form craniofacial structures; the recruitment of top researchers to the Ostrow School of Dentistry; and priceless knowledge regarding cleft palate, including insight into what sparks the malformation and promising animal research indicating how it may one day be reversible before birth. Besides his many research successes, Chai’s impact on the craniofacial biology community – through the mentoring of younger researchers, the formation of professional events, and more – also factored into the NIH’s decision.

Chai is the School’s fourth MERIT Award winner, following Harold Slavkin, Gregory Mooser, and Malcolm Snead. The Ostrow School of Dentistry as a whole has consistently earned a high level of support from the NIDCR, ranking 12th in funding among all U.S. dental research institutions and third among private doctoral dental schools during 2009.

“This award is a testament to Dr. Chai’s amazing commitment and contributions to the field,” said Ostrow School of Dentistry Dean Avishai Sadan. “His work, along with that of all of our outstanding researchers, is what keeps our School’s extraordinary legacy of innovation and discovery thriving.”