New Center Will Investigate And Discover Treatments for Temporomandibular Disorders

A new grant will bring together multidisciplinary researchers to understand jaw joint degeneration and pain from the inside out.

THE JAW JOINT IS A LITTLE LIKE THE KNEE: It has a disc in the middle and then two bony structures that articulate together to open and close the jaw. But, with all that talking and eating, the jaw joint is used more than the knee. Between 5 and 12 percent of people develop temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders that can bring on joint pain and headache, requiring medication to manage pain. The main treatment is an anti-inflammatory drug, but 30 percent of patients don’t respond to it and are left with few options. 

Despite being relatively common, there isn’t much known about this joint and its problems — scientists don’t know the root cause of the disorders, lack biomarkers to show the progression of the disease and don’t even have a good animal model with which to study it. “Compared to knee joint research, we’re about 20 years behind,” Associate Professor Jianfu Chen said.

That’s one reason why Chen and University Professor and Associate Dean of Research Yang Chai PhD ’91, DDS ’96 are teaming up to lead a new Center for TMD Collaborative for IMproving PAtient-Centered Translational Research (IMPACT) to translate research and improve patient outcomes. They are the principal investigators for a new grant from the National Institutes of Health to create the center. 

Much of the researchers’ work has centered on craniofacial tissue regeneration, and they will bring that approach to the larger consortium, which will include researchers from University of California – San Francisco and University of Calfiornia – Davis as well as patient advocates. The hope, Chai said, is not only to provide better prevention and diagnosis, but also to “develop some alternative treatments that can really help to alleviate the pain and suffering these patients have and restore their function.” 


Making a Real Difference 


The approach is similar to C-DOCTOR, an interdisciplinary center for the clinical translation of innovative regenerative technologies to replace dental, oral and craniofacial tissues or organs. 

Chai outlined some immediate goals: to survey clinicians and patients to find out the challenging unmet clinical needs and whether a biomarker could tell more about the way the disorder was progressing or a particular treatment for dysfunction of the temporomandibular joint. Then the team will bring people together to do research and develop products to improve the diagnosis and treatment for patients with TMJ.

It’s an opportunity to bring together resources already at USC, Chen said. “Historically, USC has a strong clinical program in studying the pain in the TMJ disorder — led by Professor Glenn Clark. We also have some basic research in TMD and related studies, but we haven’t been able to put it in together,” he says. “I think it’s exciting and a really good opportunity to have a center like this.” 

The new grant covers the one year, from September 2023 until September 2024 — enough time to build momentum and bring all the experts together, so we can move and compete for the next stage, Chai said. “It’s such an understudied area where we can make a real difference.” 

Recent news