Researcher Sets Sights on Stopping Harmful Oral Bacteria in Its Tracks

Researchers have oral bacteria in their sights as they look at new ways to neutralize a common bacterium that's harmless in a mother's mouth but can turn deadly when it reaches an unborn child.

Yiping Han, Ph.D., associate professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine, seeks to build roadblocks for the bacterium known as Fusobacterium nucleatum. Dr. Han has conducted a significant amount of research on Fusobacterium nucleatum, which creates havoc once it leaves the mouth and enters the bloodstream.

After it leaves the mouth, the invasion of the bacteria through the placenta allows the bacteria to multiple rapidly in the immune-free environment that protects a fetus from being rejected by the mother's body. The rapid bacterial growth causes the placenta to become inflamed, which can trigger preterm birth and fetal death.

Dr. Han has researched mechanisms of bacterial transport that not only have the potential to prevent preterm and stillborn births, but may have help prevent periodontal disease, which has been linked to health problems like arthritis, diabetes and heart disease.

In previous studies, Dr. Han discovered an adhesin protein molecule — or binding agent —; called FadA in the genes of F. nucleatum. This binding agent on the bacteria allows them to connect with receptors on cells in the mouth and later cells of the placenta. In tests, bacteria without the binding agent had less binding capability compared to those that do have it.

In this new study, "we will be able to continue a functional analysis of FadA," said Dr. Han. "We want to block the bacteria before it can do any damage. It's an upstream approach to go back to where the whole process begins and stop it from starting its destruction."

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