Thursday, June 30, 2022

Azeez Alade with his Smile Train award

Azeez Alade, a PhD candidate in genetic epidemiology, specializes in identifying rare genetic factors associated with orofacial clefts in African populations. The International Association for Dental Research (IADR) and Smile Train, a nonprofit organization, awarded Alade $75K to support his dissertation research.

Smile Train is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing free corrective surgery for cleft lip and palate around the world.

Non-syndromic orofacial clefts (NSOFCs) are one of the most common congenital birth defects with an estimated worldwide prevalence of 1.25 out of 1000 live births. Affected children often have difficulty with speech, suckling, hearing, and unaesthetic facial appearance and these difficulties often require life-long management.

Both the IADR and Smile Train recognize the need for investigators to produce cleft-related research (diagnosis, patient counseling, treatment etc.) that can be applied in clinical practice and be used to maintain and improve these patient's quality of life and that of their families. The award is intended to help investigators, like Alade, pursue innovative and novel research that is cleft related. 

One way to make a difference for cleft patients is to know and deal with the genetic factors that explain orofacial clefts. The etiology of NSOFCs is complex and multifactorial, with genetic factors playing a major role. Only 20-30% of the total heritability has been identified, leaving substantial room for greater understanding. The unique roles of rare variants in complex traits are well documented and a recent study found rare variants to be responsible for a larger proportion of the missing heritability for NSOFCs.

Alade’s research is intended to help address this gap. This project aims to discover novel genes and regulatory regions contributing to the etiopathogenesis of non-syndromic orofacial clefts (NSOFCs) by applying rare variants aggregation tests to identify 1) genes and 2) regulatory regions enriched in rare variants associated with NSOFCs in African populations.

As such, Alade’s research is laying the groundwork for genetic interventions that could reduce the prevalence and impact of oral clefts.

The project builds on Smile Train’s larger efforts to increase access and improve all aspects of cleft care globally.

The research team is led by Azeez Alade (principal investigator), Azeez Butali (subject-matter expert and research mentor), and Erliang Zeng (biostatistician).

Azeez Butali, professor of oral pathology, radiology, and medicine at the University of Iowa and Alade’s mentor, is the world’s foremost expert in the genetics of cleft lip and palate among African populations.

“Azeez Alade is the first scholar to receive this award globally. This is a major win for Dr. Alade, the College of Dentistry, and the University of Iowa,” Butali said.