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Big expectations for microscopic cells

​Part 3 of a three-part series exploring research focused on the connections that exist between oral and health care. 

If aliens visited Earth to study humans, they may wonder who is in charge: Us or the microscopic organisms living inside of us. That's because, compared to the number of human cells, at least 10 times as many bacterial, viral and fungal cells are living on and in people. 

But for humans, these communities of microscopic organisms play a pivotal role in shaping our health in both good and bad ways. For instance, the combination of bacteria in our stomachs helps us digest food, clearly a benefit. On the other hand, some bacteria living on our teeth cause inflammation of our gums. 

While that may seem like a minor problem, over time this inflammation may play a role in diseases such as diabetes, coronary artery disease and rheumatoid arthritis. This is a question that is yet to be answered.

The future of research is to explain why and how such interactions work between humans and the microbial communities they harbor, and to understand how these processes differ from one person to another. 

At Marshfield Clinic Research Institute's Center for Human Genetics (CHG), the process to identify and understand these complex relationships is underway. In addition to studying the genetic information of humans (the human genome), scientists have expanded their approach to look as well at the microbial populations' genetic information, known as the microbiome.

Specifically, MCRI is focusing on the genetics of organisms found in the mouth, the oral microbiome. For the past year, with funding from MCRI​ and Delta Dental of Wisconsin, CHG director Dr. Murray Brilliant and his colleagues, including molecular microbiologist Dr. Sanjay Shukla and dental scientist Dr. Amit Acharya, have launched the Delta Dental Oral and Systemic Health Research Initiative to build the infrastructure to take on this exciting new area of research. 

This setup includes techniques for patient recruitment and laboratory processes, a biobank to store biological samples, and biomedical informatics tools that allow for effective study of large pools of medical, dental, and genetic data. Once complete, this infrastructure will serve as the backbone for microbiome studies, particularly dealing with the communities of organisms living in the mouth. 

The Delta Dental initiative will be a resource for numerous research studies looking at the connections between the health in the mouth and diseases in the rest of the body.  Currently, researchers are recruiting participants at eight of the Family Health Center of Marshfield, Inc. dental centers across the state. 

Researchers hope an enhanced understanding of the oral microbiome's role in disease will allow doctors and dentists to be better able to predict who might get a particular disease. For example, a dentist may be able to predict, based on a patient's oral microbiome, that he or she is likely to develop diabetes or heart disease and refer the patient to a physician for early screening. 

The ultimate goal is more personalized health care, with preventions and treatments more tailored for the individual patient than they are today