A federal grant worth about $1.7 million will help the Medical University of South Carolina restart a graduate dental program that provides affordable treatment to South Carolinians, school officials said.

The grant, handed down from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will fund an advanced general dentistry residency program for fifth-year students at the College of Dental Medicine. The residency has been unavailable since 2006 because of a lack of money, said Dr. John Sanders, dean of the school.

The federal grant will pay to train four to six students a year for five years, said Dr. Elizabeth Pilcher, who wrote the proposal. Students will complete rotations in "under-served" areas, which generally are in rural parts of the state, and will treat special-needs patients using specialized facilities at the college, she said.

"It will help improve access to care," Pilcher said.

The fifth-year students will treat patients with more complex dental problems than patients seen by undergraduate dental students, Pilcher said. Patients can benefit because treatment by students can cost half the price of the same treatment by private dentists, she said.

When the program was suspended four years ago, patients who couldn't afford to address complicated dental issues had no place to go, Sanders said.

"The economy has gotten worse since then. Now there are more people in this category," he said.

School officials said they had planned to restart the program in 2011, regardless of whether the grant money came through.

Although administrators were unsure how many patients would line up for treatment, they said they were confident they would have enough volume to sustain the program after the grant money runs dry.

Reach Renee Dudley at 937-5550.