UW School of Dentistry

Dentistry PhD candidate receives major grant to study oral pain syndrome

Dr. Sumeia Werfalli, who is studying for her PhD in oral biology at the School of Dentistry, has been awarded a Scan│Design Foundation Innovative Pain Research Grant by the University of Washington Department of Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine.

Dr. Sumeia Werfalli head shotDr. Werfalli, who already holds a dental degree from Libya’s Benghazi University dental school and earned her master’s degree in dentistry after completing a residency in oral medicine at the UW in 2013, will use the $41,290 grant to support her studies of salivary mucins in patients with burning mouth syndrome.

Mucins are proteins that make up the primary components of mucus, and they help lubricate and protect the oral cavity. Burning mouth syndrome, as its name implies, is a burning sensation that usually occurs on the tip of the tongue or roof of the mouth, but can also appear elsewhere in the mouth. The condition affects primarily postmenopausal women and is commonly associated with dry mouth.

“The impact of this condition on the quality of life of these sufferers is substantial,” Dr. Werfalli said.  It has no well-identified cause, and can last for years. Treatment options are scarce.

Dr. Werfalli’s study will explore the hypothesis that the syndrome is caused by a mucin-related malfunction of the oral epithelial barrier, the layer of tissue that provides the mouth’s first line of defense against bacteria and other threats. She believes that her findings may also help shed light on other pain conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

She will be the principal investigator on the Scan│Design Foundation study, and her co-investigators will include her mentor, Dr. Linda LeResche, Associate Dean of Research for the School of Dentistry; Dr. Jill Johnson, Associate Professor in the Department of Hematology in the UW School of Medicine; Dr. Mark Drangsholt, Chair of the Department of Oral Medicine at the School of Dentistry; Dr. Richard Presland, Oral Health Sciences graduate program director at the School of Dentistry; and Dr. Susanne Kölare Jeffrey, a member of the Oral Health Sciences faculty.

“I am very honored and grateful for receiving this significant award, which motivates me to complete my research project as well as additional assays in support of my dissertation work,” Dr. Werfalli said.

The nonprofit Scan│Design Foundation, established in Denmark and Seattle in 2002, supports pain research. It is funded by Scan│Design Furniture, which opened in Bellevue in 1964 and now has stores in Washington and Oregon.