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Center for Craniofacial Research

The Center for Craniofacial Research (CCR) is home to leading scientists working to improve knowledge of several oral and craniofacial abnormalities for translation into better patient care.  It was established in 2013 as a collaborative endeavor between UTHealth’s School of Dentistry and McGovern Medical School.  Craniofacial anomalies are common affecting 1/30 or 3% of newborns with more than 4.5 million affected annually worldwide. 

The CCR’s mission is to lead cutting-edge research to identify, understand, prevent and treat craniofacial abnormalities and disorders.  The CCR is under the direction of nationally recognized geneticist Jacqueline T. Hecht, PhD, MS, professor and director of the Pediatric Research Center at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School.

“Craniofacial abnormalities are common, costly and crushing for families. Finding the causes of these birth defects is of critical importance and achievable in the near future. This will lead to prevention programs and better treatments.”

Jacqueline T. Hecht, PhD, Director, Center for Craniofacial Research, UTHealth School of Dentistry


  • CCR has 14 full-time basic science faculty members conducting clinically relevant studies to improve the lives of individuals with craniofacial disorders.  Studies are funded by multiple and different granting agencies including National Institutes of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
  • CCR investigators have recruited thousands of patients for their studies and have generated an extensive database of DNA and RNA samples collected from patients and families with cleft lip and palate, and other dental anomalies and oral/dental conditions.
  • CCR facilities are outstanding and feature both basic and modern equipment in world-class laboratories and animal facilities in the UTHealth Behavioral and Biomedical Sciences Building, McGovern Medical School, and TMC research facilities nearby
  • CCR has a full-time genetic counselor providing clinical and genetic assessment of patients with craniofacial anomalies.  Genetic counselors help families understand why craniofacial anomalies occur and whether they will recur in future pregnancies.
  • Honors Bestowed on researchers

Junichi Iwata, DDS, PhD

(Link to Iwata Lab)

Dr. Iwata’s research is focused on cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying craniofacial birth defects (e.g. cleft lip with/without cleft palate, tooth and musculoskeletal defects) and diseases (e.g. Sjögren’s syndrome). His laboratory has been characterizing cellular metabolic processes, membrane trafficking, and non-coding RNAs—which are crucial for craniofacial development and homeostasis—using multidisciplinary approaches including genetics, genomics, proteomics, biochemistry, and molecular biology.

Noriaki Ono, DDS, PhD & Wanida Ono, DDS, DMSc, PhD

(Link to Ono & Ono Lab)

The Ono & Ono laboratory seeks to understand the fundamental characteristics of stem cells of bones and cartilages – termed “skeletal stem cells” – and how these cells orchestrate bone development, regeneration and diseases, primarily by means of mouse genetics approaches. My laboratory has substantial expertise on in vivo cell lineage analyses, and application of this technique to interrogate the essential functionality of skeletal stem cells in vivo, in combination of single-cell genomics approaches. We study skeletal stem cells across many bone compartments through the body, including those residing in the growth plate, the bone marrow and the craniofacial structure.

Simon Young, DDS, MD, PhD

(Link to Young Lab)

Dr. Young is a board-certified oral & maxillofacial surgeon and scientist whose research efforts include the synthesis and characterization of implantable biomaterials designed to elicit in situ cell recruitment and programming. His work includes the use of materials able to simultaneously deliver multiple bioactive factors with distinct release profiles. These constructs have been used in a diverse set of applications such as the promotion of craniofacial bone regeneration and cancer immunotherapy. Current work in the Young lab seeks to develop novel material-based immunotherapies for the treatment of head and neck cancer and explore mechanisms of how this approach may synergize with chemo/radiation therapy.  The paradigm of in situ cell programming using biomaterials is also being utilized in separate collaborative tissue engineering research projects exploring the use of semiconductor-based materials to enhance craniofacial bone regeneration and multidomain peptide hydrogels for nerve regeneration.

Dr. Jun Wang, PhD (MMS Pediatrics)

The Wang lab research is focused in studying the molecular and genetic regulation of craniofacial and cardiac development, diseases, and regeneration, Our goal is to develop novel diagnostic and therapeutic tools for cardiovascular and craniofacial diseases. We use a combination of state-of-the-art approaches including mouse genetics, physiology studies, and next generation sequencing techniques.

  1. Yu, Y., Alvarado, R., Petty, L.E., Bohlender, R.J., Shaw, D.M., Below, J.E., Bejar, N., Ruiz, O.E., Tandon, B., Eisenhofer, G.T., Kiss, D.L., Huff, C.D., Letra, A., Hecht, J.T.: Hum Mol Genet. 2022 Feb 11:ddac037. doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddac037. Online ahead of print. PMID: 35147171.
  2. Mukhopadhyay, N., Feingold, E., Moreno-Uribe, L., Wehby, G., Valencia-Ramirez, L.C., Restrepo Muneton, C.P., Padilla, C., Deleyiannis, F., Christensen, K., Poletta, F.A., Orioli, L.M., Hecht, J.T., Buxo, C.J., Butali, A., Adeyemo, W.L., Veira, A.R. Shaffer, J.R., Murray, J.C., Weinberg, S.M., Leslie, E.J.:  Genome-wide association study of multiethnic non-syndromic orofacial cleft families identifies novel loci specific to family and phenotypic subtypes. medRxiv. doi:
  3. Young, J., Lifer, S.S., Blanton, S., Hecht, J.T.: DNA methylation variation is identified in monozygotic twins discordant for nonsyndromic cleft lip and palate. Frontiers Cell Dev Biol 2021 May 12 doi: 10.3389/fcell.2021.656865 PMCID:PMC8149607.
  4. Suzuki A, Ogata K, Iwata J. Cell signaling regulation in salivary gland development. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2021 Apr;78(7):3299-3315. doi: 10.1007/s00018-020-03741-2. PMID: 33449148.
  5. Yoshioka H, Li A, Suzuki A, Ramakrishnan SS, Zhao Z, Iwata J. Identification of microRNAs and gene regulatory networks in cleft lip common in humans and mice. Hum Mol Genet. 2021 Sep 15;30(19):1881-1893. doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddab151. PMID: 34104955.
  6. Yoshioka H, Mikami Y, Ramakrishnan SS, Suzuki A, Iwata J. MicroRNA-124-3p plays a crucial role in cleft palate induced by retinoic acid. Front Cell Dev Biol. 2021 Jun 9;9:621045. doi: 10.3389/fcell.2021.621045. PMID: 34178974.
  7. Suzuki A, Ogata K, Yoshioka H, Shim J, Wassif CA, Porter FD, Iwata J. Disruption of Dhcr7 and Insig1/2 in cholesterol metabolism causes defects in bone formation and homeostasis through primary cilium formation. Bone Res. 2020 Jan 2;8:1. doi: 10.1038/s41413-019-0078-3. PMID: 31934493.