Welcome to the Cunningham Lab
The Cunningham lab investigates the fundamental mechanisms behind craniosynostosis and other malformations, with the goal of making discoveries that lead to improved care for patients with craniofacial conditions.
Unraveling the causes of craniosynostosis
Histologic cross section of a rat coronal suture.
Craniosynostosis is a hereditary condition that occurs when the sutures, or seams, between a child’s skull bones fuse too early and stop the skull from expanding as the brain grows. This can lead to an abnormally shaped head, increased pressure inside the skull, facial malformations and other problems. Children with craniosynostosis often require extensive surgery.
The Cunningham lab’s current research focuses on understanding single-suture craniosynostosis (SSC), which occurs when only one skull suture is prematurely fused. This occurs in approximately one in 2,500 births.
Colorized 3D CT scans of a normal human calvaria (top left) and cases of craniosynostosis.
The lab uses human studies, mouse models, and the latest molecular and genetic techniques to study what causes SSC and to better understand how it develops. The team examines how genetic changes affect the biology of the suture, resulting in premature fusion.
Identifying genes that cause rare craniofacial malformations
Working together with researchers in the University of Washington Department of Genome Sciences, the lab uses next-generation sequencing methods to identify the genetic causes of rare craniofacial conditions including auriculo-condylar syndrome, acromelic frontonasal dysplasia, Mercedes synostosis and oculo-oto-facial dysplasia.
Harnessing the power of collaboration
The lab’s highly collaborative nature brings researchers with different specialties together to investigate all facets of craniofacial conditions. By working side-by-side with other researchers and clinicians in Seattle Children’s Craniofacial Center and at the University of Washington, as well as other national and international scientists, the lab is helping build a comprehensive understanding of these disorders. The long-term goal is to translate this knowledge into diagnostic tools, therapies and techniques that improve the lives of patients and their families.
Michael L. Cunningham, MD, PhD, is chief of the Division of Craniofacial Medicine and professor 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 Health Sciences 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, graduate and postdoctoral students, pediatric 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.
Funded through the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, Cunningham’s lab has been open since 1993.
Support Craniofacial Research at Seattle Children's
The Cunningham lab and Seattle Children’s Craniofacial Center are poised to make important discoveries that will help improve care of children with craniosynostosis, cleft lip and palate, craniofacial microsomia and other conditions affecting hundreds of thousands of patients worldwide. Much of their current success and acquisition of federal funding is due to pilot research projects funded through philanthropy. Consider making a donation to craniofacial research.