Commencement 2017: Biographies – Bruce Baum, D71

Bruce J. Baum, DMD, PhD., pioneering dental researcher and former member of the board of advisors to Tufts School of Dental Medicine is awarded an honorary Doctor of Science during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 161st Commencement on Sunday, May 21, 2017.
Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts Photography


As a researcher and clinician, you have demonstrated that curiosity and imagination are the twin gateways to discovery. A seminal achievement of your thirty-five-year career at the National Institutes of Health grew out of an idea you jotted on a napkin; from there, you led a team at NIH in developing the first gene therapy technique to repair damaged salivary glands in patients suffering from oral cancer and chronic dry mouth. That groundbreaking research led to successful clinical trials and has opened the way for further applications of gene therapy in the salivary gland. Now a scientist emeritus at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, you credit your alma mater, the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, with instilling in you the importance of developing critical-thinking skills, and of relying on evidence-based outcomes to improve patient care. “I was taught that lesson on my first day at Tufts,” you told our dental students not long ago. For a career devoted to advancing human health, and for passing on your insatiable love of inquiry to the next generation of scientists and practitioners, Tufts is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.


BRUCE BAUM, D71, believes that research provides the intellectual underpinnings of dentistry. During his long tenure at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Baum has applied the tools of inquiry and scientific discovery to transform theory into treatments that improve patients’ quality of life. His expertise is in the field of gene transfer, the process of inserting new genetic material into cells. He has led promising research on using gene transfer to treat patients with damaged salivary glands—primarily those who have undergone radiation for head or neck cancers, or who have certain autoimmune diseases–and the chronic, debilitating dry mouth that can ensue.

Baum is a scientist emeritus at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), part of the NIH, in Bethesda, Maryland. He began his career at the NIH five years after graduating from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. But it was during dental school, under the guidance and mentorship of several of his professors, that Baum’s interest turned toward research as a way to benefit patients.

“As health-care professionals, we are obligated to improve the standard of care available. I was taught that lesson on my first day at Tufts” by then-Dean Louis Calisti, Baum said in 2009, during a keynote address at Bates- Andrews Day, the dental school’s annual student research fair. His first NIH position was at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. He eventually moved to the NIDCR, where his group focused on salivary glands, and he eventually became chief of the NIDCR’s Gene Therapy and Therapeutics Branch. By the early 1990s, he hit upon the idea that emerging gene transfer technology might be a way to restore damaged salivary glands and provide relief to patients who not only battled the parching discomfort of dry mouth, but who faced a higher risk for other health conditions as a result.

The idea bore fruit. Baum and his colleagues conducted the first-ever clinical study of gene transfer in a human salivary gland. In research published in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they demonstrated that a gene that expresses a protein that forms new water channels could be safely transferred into a person and improve salivary secretion. “You cannot imagine how fulfilling it is to jot down an idea on a napkin in 1991 and then see it enter a clinical trial and help people, ” Baum said of the discovery.

Baum has maintained an interest in health sciences education and is the former director of the NIH Medical Research Scholars Program, in which medical, dental, and veterinary students spend a year at the NIH in Bethesda studying and conducting research. He is an advocate for including more biological sciences in dental education and for helping students develop critical-thinking skills.

Baum, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry from Boston University, has served on multiple journal editorial boards and on dental school review panels. Among many honors, Baum was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2007. He is a former member of the board of advisors to Tufts School of Dental Medicine and received the Tufts Alumni Association’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, in 2002.

Tufts will award him an honorary Doctor of Science degree.