by Sheila Smith Noonan
Sensodyne®, Polident®, and Poli-Grip® are familiar brand names. But alumni who attended NJDS in the late '60s and members of the UMDNJ community will find another familiar name connected with the company that makes those productsDr. Michael C. Alfano ('71).
Dr. Alfano is senior vice president of research and technology at Block Drug Company, Inc. Now an executive, he has been a practicing periodontist, a professor, and a researcher. "I enjoyed it all," he says. "I'm not a disgruntled dentist who turned to industry."
At NJDS, former Endodontics chair Dr. Robert Gillis piqued Dr. Alfano's interest in research through the dental student research program, and Dr. Alfano received student grants each summer. Upon graduation, he entered a combined program in Massachusetts, earning a doctorate
in biochemistry at MIT and studying periodontics at Harvard. In 1974, he took a teaching job at Fairleigh Dickinson University School of Dentistry, where he became an associate dean and full professor. There, through National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, he indulged his love of research, exploring the role of diet in dental disease and becoming a consultant to food companies interested in making their products less cariogenic.
"That work was done on animals, but there was also a research center at FDU that focused on clinical research in humans," Dr. Alfano says. "At the center, I worked with pharmaceutical companies, including Block Drug. I was also involved in one of the first Warner-Lambert studies that showed Listerine® was effective in reducing gingivitis."
Meanwhile, Dr. Alfano practiced periodontics in Franklin Lakes. He liked working with people and running his own business, he says. Academics and his practice had their own steadiness and routine, but he wanted something more. "I became fascinated with the possibility of making products and getting them on the shelf."
Dr. Alfano joined Block in 1982, and that move fulfilled his desire for unpredictability and challenge. "There's no such thing as a typical day at Block Drug. I think I know what each day is going to bring, but that often changes," he says. "I could be negotiating a new acquisition opportunity, troubleshooting at a manufacturing plant, launching new products, or improving existing ones. I'm part accountant, part lawyer, part clinician, and a tiny bit scientist."
For Block's well-known products, such as Sensodyne®, improvement comes in the form of adding whitening agents or improving the taste. A new item such as Apthasol®, the first FDA-approved drug specifically for treatment of canker sores, requires Dr. Alfano to work with the company's marketing team as part of Block's "Serious Dental Medicine" initiative.
Although he's not at the chair anymore, periodontics remains part of Dr. Alfano's life. Block has been working on its own prescription periodontal drugs and markets the Atrisorb® barrier and hopefully soon, he says, a new subgingival anti-infective treatment. With a growing number of studies connecting periodontal disease with serious systemic problems, Dr. Alfano believes researchers are close to making breakthrough advancements in this area. "Researchers are today where others were 10 years ago with heart disease and aspirin," he says.
The Jersey City-based firm's product list goes far beyond dental products. There's Balmex® brand diaper rash ointment, Nytol® sleep aids, Lava® brand hand soap, and 2000 Flushes® automatic toilet bowl cleaners. Dr. Alfano has to keep on top of them all. "It's a full mix that forces me to learn about things I wouldn't otherwise be interested in, but they are part of the product line," he says.
Away from work, Dr. Alfano has his plate full with academic and civic responsibilities. He is a consultant to the NIH and serves on the National Advisory Dental Research Council of the National Institute of Dental Research. The executive also is on the advisory boards of the University of Pennsylvania Dental School; Columbia Dental School; and Forsyth Dental Center. Closer to home, he is a trustee of the Foundation of UMDNJ, which recently completed a $52 million campaign.
Still, Dr. Alfano likes to keep his priorities straight. "I'm not one of those people who stays at work until 11 p.m. I usually leave around 5, and if I have work, I bring it home," he says. "I believe in the value of getting home for dinner."