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Thousands of bacteria teeming within the human mouth could hold the key to better understanding a wide range of health problems, including gum disease, cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and stroke.

University at Buffalo researchers will be on the forefront of figuring out how.

The National Institutes of Health awarded UB scientists a $4 million grant to study and catalog the oral bacteria of more than 1,000 women. The scientists will use a new technique – next-generation sequencing – that makes it possible to identify the previously unknown microbes.

The information could someday help explain what relationships exist between the presence of certain bacteria and a variety of human diseases, possibly leading to prevention and treatment.

The study will build on existing data gathered as far back as 1997 by UB researchers.

That’s when they first began looking at how changes in the oral microbiome – the collection of bacteria in and around the gums and teeth – relate to gum disease in postmenopausal women.

Plaque and saliva samples collected for the previous research, which involved 1,300 women, were frozen and saved. Those samples now can be re-examined using next-generation sequencing to identify far more bacteria than previous methods allowed.

While researchers elsewhere have closely examined the association between oral bacteria and disease, most of the studies have had relatively small sample sizes of 25 to 50 people.

UB’s study is much broader.

“To our knowledge, there is no prospective epidemiologic study as large and rich with available data resources that can address the cutting-edge questions we propose here on the oral microbiome and its relationship to periodontitis in postmenopausal women,” said Jean Wactawski-Wende, professor in the department of epidemiology and environmental health and lead investigator on the study.

The research will involve scientists from across several disciplines at UB, including the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; the School of Dental Medicine; the School of Public Health and Health Professions; the state Center for Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences at UB; and the Genomic Medicine Network.

The researchers expect to bring back about 600 women who provided plaque, saliva and blood samples 15 years ago and examine how their microbiomes have changed over time.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com