Michael L Cunningham, MD, PhD

Michael L Cunningham, MD, PhD


  • Children's Title: Division Chief, Craniofacial Medicine; Medical Director, Craniofacial Center
  • Academic Title: Professor
  • Foundation Title: Jean Renny Endowed Chair in Pediatric Craniofacial Medicine
  • Research Center: Center for Developmental Biology and Regenerative Medicine
  • On Staff Since: October 1991
"The care of a single patient during residency made me realize that I enjoyed helping families work through the difficult time after the birth of a child with complex cleft and craniofacial disorders. After residency, I was given the unique opportunity to train in the longitudinal care of these patients and their families. Encouraged by my mentors, Drs. Ron Lemire and Sterling Clarren, I returned to graduate school to obtain a PhD in Anatomy and Embryology. Now, after this 20-year journey as a physician-scientist, I recognize that it is my patients, their families and my trainees who serve as my teachers. I am dedicated to the advancement of craniofacial research and our unique model of pediatric care for children born with these conditions."
  • Biography

    Michael L. Cunningham, MD, PhD, is chief of the Division of Craniofacial Medicine and professor of pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is medical director of Seattle Children's Craniofacial Center and holds the Jean Renny Endowed Chair in Craniofacial Medicine. He is also adjunct professor in the Departments of Biological Structures, Oral Biology and Pediatric Dentistry at the University of Washington.

    Dr. Cunningham balances responsibilities in administration, patient care and research. He does bedside teaching of medical students, pediatrics residents and dental students. His clinical interests focus on the diagnosis and long-term interdisciplinary care of children with craniofacial malformations, with a particular interest in craniosynostosis. He is co-investigator on several clinical research projects, ranging from the epidemiology of positional plagiocephaly to computer modeling of craniofacial conditions.

    Funded through the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, Dr. Cunningham's basic molecular and developmental biology lab has been open since 1993 and is using human and mouse models to investigate the molecular causes of craniosynostosis and developmental pathogenesis of midface hypoplasia associated with syndromic craniosynostosis.

    Board Certification(s)



    University of Vermont College of Medicine, Burlington, VT
    University of Washington, Seattle, WA


    University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA


    Seattle Children's Hospital, Seattle, WA

    Clinical Interests

    Diagnosis and management of craniofacial malformation syndromes, Molecular developmental biology of craniosynostosis and other craniofacial conditions

    Research Description

    Craniosynostosis Research Program

    Isolated craniosynostosis (premature fusion of the skull bones) occurs in approximately 1 out of 2500 births. The sutures of the skull are the areas of expansion during normal brain growth. Premature suture fusion results in abnormalities in head shape due to restriction of growth in the region of a fused suture. These changes of head shape can be associated with increased intracranial pressure (pressure within the skull) that can result in permanent brain injury.

    In addition to the risks of brain injury, craniosynostosis is often associated with alteration of craniofacial growth leading to mid-facial hypoplasia, dental malocclusion, and orbital deformation. The combination of craniosynostosis and its associated facial malformations leads to significant health problems. Patients with craniosynostosis require one or more reconstructive surgeries to correct the functional deficits associated with their malformations.

    Craniosynostosis remains a significant medical and dental health issue deserving of aggressive scientific investigation. The Cunningham Laboratory and members of the Children's Craniofacial Center use both basic science and clinical science to answer important questions about the etiology, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of craniosynostosis.

    Dr. Cunningham and his lab group use bone cell lines and animal models to study the molecular and developmental causes of human malformations. Their primary interest is a condition called craniosynostosis. Their research is focused on the molecular and developmental causes of several hereditary craniosynostosis syndromes including Apert, Crouzon, Saethre-Chotzen, and Muenke syndromes. These conditions are caused by mutations in members of the fibroblast growth factor receptor family (FGFRs) or TWIST.

    In addition to these relatively rare forms of synostosis, the Cunningham lab investigates the molecular and developmental causes of isolated single suture craniosynostosis. Through the use of modern techniques of molecular biology, mutational analysis, expression analysis, and cell biology the Cunningham lab investigates the normal development of the human skull and pathogenesis of craniosynostosis as a mechanism to identify alternative treatment and prevention strategies.

    Research Focus Area


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