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News / July 16, 2009

Mouth bacteria study aims to protect unborn babies

by Guy Hiscott

A scientist is investigating how to halt common bacterium in a pregnant mother’s mouth which can prove deadly when it reaches an unborn child.

Yiping Han, associate professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine in the US, aims to understand how to build roadblocks for a common bacterium that’s harmless in a mother’s mouth but can become harmful when it reaches the baby.

She has received a five-year, $1.85 million grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) at the National Institutes of Health to fund the effort.


This is the professor’s second NIDCR RO1 award. She’s published more than 10 papers from previous research related to the bacterium, Fusobacterium nucleatum, that creates havoc once it leaves the mouth and enters the blood stream.


She has discovered an adhesin protein molecule, called FadA, in the genes of F. nucleatum. This adhesin, or binding agent, on the bacteria allows them to connect with receptors on epithelial cells in the mouth and later the endothelial cells of the placenta.


In tests, bacteria without FadA had less binding capability compared to those with the adhesin, Han and a team of researchers report on this finding in the July issue of the journal Infection and Immunity.


Professor Han says: ‘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.’


Once 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 the foetus from being rejected by the mother’s body.


The rapid bacterial growth causes the placenta to become inflamed. In turn, the inflammation can trigger pre-term birth and foetal death.


According to Professor Han, this research into the mechanisms of bacterial transport not only has potential to prevent pre-term and stillborn births, it may have implications in preventing periodontal disease.