The American Dental Association is merging with the Forsyth Institute, a quiet, yet influential Cambridge nonprofit credited with some crucial breakthroughs in oral health.
The ADA, the dominant trade organization for the dental industry, will combine its existing research arm with the Forsyth to create the ADA Forsyth Institute. The program will remain in Cambridge and be led by Wenyuan Shi, president and CEO of Forsyth.
“We’re creating the biggest monster in dentistry,” Shi said in an interview. “That really means we’re introducing a lot of innovation into the dental practice.”
Shi said the merger will allow the fruits of its research to reach patients more easily and could also open up new fund-raising and partnership opportunities to help fund dental research.
Well known in the dental industry but less visible to the general public, the Forsyth Institute is credited with key developments over more than a century.
Notably, starting in 1901, Forsyth scientists began the research that would lead to the widespread use of fluoride to prevent cavities. In 1985, Forsyth created the first antibiotic treatment for gum disease.
The Forsyth began as the world’s first pediatric dental hospital, treating children’s cavities — including 2-year-old John F. Kennedy. Even today, Forsyth provides oral healthcare to thousands of children through its ForsythKids program, which sets up temporary dental clinics at schools, day cares, homeless shelters, and neighborhoods across the state.
The ADA has also developed a research program over the years. Among its innovations are the creation of the first complete map of every cell in the mouth and the development of the ADA Seal of Acceptance program — which has been earned by over 400 dental products.
In a statement, Governor Maura Healey said the merger “will build on more than a century of excellent work right here in Massachusetts.”
“The Forsyth Institute has been, and will continue to be an integral part of the Massachusetts bio-innovation and research community,” Healey said.
Elyse Cherry, chairwoman of the Forsyth board, said she hopes the merger will elevate the discussion of dental science, often underrepresented in the world of health care: “When you start talking about gum disease, everybody kind of flinches,” she said.
Although Americans spent more than $160 billion on oral care in 2021, according to the ADA, the underlying science has remained in the shadow of mainstream health priorities.
In part, Cherry believes that’s why Forsyth and its work have flown under the radar.
“We’re the institute that no one’s ever heard of,” Cherry said. “With this merger, we are starting the next century … It’s a new era in oral health and oral health research.”
Now, Forsyth is studying how oral bacteria can spread throughout the body, and its researchers are examining whether such infections are connected to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s, and heart disease.
But even when the effects remain in the mouth, they are far-reaching. Nearly 100 percent of elderly people will have some level of periodontal disease — bacteria that damages your gum and causes tooth loss, according to Shi.
This merger is an important first step towards a more robust oral health industry, said Mariya Filipova, the chief innovation officer at CareQuest Innovation Partners and CareQuest Institute for Oral Health.
But now the challenge is to ensure the innovation can reach health care providers, patients, and investors.
“Oral health needs to be in the health conversation, and it needs to be in the business conversation as well,” Filipova said. “You can’t just have it as an afterthought.”