EIOH Awarded $3.5 Million for First-of-its-Kind Study

May. 17, 2022
Study Aims to Predict Severe Childhood Tooth Decay in Early Infancy

UR Medicine’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health has been awarded a $3.5 million grant to conduct a first-ever study that will examine early-life biological factors related to severe tooth decay among underserved racial and ethnic minority groups.

portrait Dr. Jin Xiao
Dr. Jin Xiao, EIOH associate professor and perinatal oral health expert

The study is led by Jin Xiao, DDS, PhD, EIOH associate professor and perinatal oral health expert, in collaboration with co-principal investigators Steve Gill, PhD, professor of Microbiology and Immunology, and a microbiome research expert, and Tong Tong Wu, PhD, associate professor of Biostatistics and Computational Biology and a high-dimensional data modeling expert. 

Although largely preventable, Early Childhood Caries (ECC)—severe tooth decay among young children—affects one third of socioeconomically disadvantaged and racial/ethnic minority preschool children in the U.S.  While ECC is an infectious disease initiated by bacteria in the oral cavity, the relationship between the person, the bacteria and the environment affects the onset and severity.

portrait of Dr. Steve Gill
Steve Gill, PhD, UR professor of Microbiology and Immunology

In a separate study, EIOH scientists learned that a certain type of yeast—Candida albicans—is largely present in the mouths of pregnant women in underserved communities. “We learned this yeast is also largely present in their children’s mouths as early as one week after birth and stays in the mouth if not treated,” explained Dr. Xiao, principal investigator for the newly funded grant, Oral Microbiome in Early Infancy (OMEI). “If this type of yeast was found in the mother’s mouth, our research showed a strong connection between the mother and her baby both having tooth decay. Therefore, we want to further examine how this yeast plays a role in shaping the oral environment in early life that leads to ECC.”

Funded by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of National Institutes of Health, the five-year study will examine 2,000 saliva samples previously collected from a cohort of minority mothers and babies to sequence the whole spectrum of oral microbes, including bacteria and fungi. The team will then build tooth decay prediction models by integrating multi-platform data, including the microbiome, human candidate genes, immune markers and maternal and socio-behavioral information.

Dr. Xiao treating a pregnant patient at Eastman Dental
Dr. Xiao treats pregnant women at Eastman Dental's Specialty Care clinic.

“If we learn that infants in underserved communities have a higher amount of bacteria and yeast in early life, we could predict sooner and with more accuracy who is at increased risk of developing ECC and then work to prevent it,” said Dr. Xiao. “For example, we could generate chair-side risk detection and intervention, such as detecting certain bacteria and fungi in mothers’ and babies’ mouths during OB visits and check-ups, provide interventions and subsequently prevent tooth decay.”

portrait of Dr. Tong Tong Wu
Tong Tong Wu, PhD, UR associate professor, Biostatistics and Computational Biology

The harmful short and long term effects of ECC result in a substantial adverse impact on children, families, and healthcare systems. By the time children with severe tooth decay see a dentist, treatment primarily focuses on extensive restorative procedures. But if detected and addressed in its early stages, it can be reversed.

“This grant supports EIOH’s commitment to reduce health disparities among underserved communities,” said Eli Eliav, DMD, PhD, director of Eastman Institute for Oral Health. “We’re delighted we’ve continued to earn the trust of NIDCR to pursue this important research with innovation and collaboration throughout the University.”

In addition to Drs. Xiao, Gill and Wu, the research team is comprised of experts in health disparities and includes University of Rochester investigators Kevin Fiscella, MD, MPH, professor of Family Medicine and expert in disparity and implementation science, Michael Sohn, PhD, assistant professor, Biostatistics and Computational Biology and metagenomics sequencing analysis expert, and Ying Meng, PhD, RN, School of Nursing assistant professor whose expertise is children’s nutrition and genetics.