Research Spotlight - Bioinformatics & Oral Health

Yijun Sun, PhD (left), and Michael Buck, PhD, aim to better understand the interplay between the microbiome in the mouth and patients’ health.

Bioinformatics Aids $4 Million Oral Microbiome Women’s Health Study

Published June 30, 2014

Bioinformatics and genomics experts from the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences will contribute to a $4 million interdisciplinary study of bacteria in the mouth and periodontal disease in postmenopausal women.

“The study will fill a critical gap in our knowledge of the role of the subgingival microbiome in periodontal disease severity and progression. In the future, this information could inform strategies to prevent and treat periodontal disease.”
Yijun Sun, PhD
Assistant professor of microbiology and immunology

Made possible with advances in next-generation genomic sequencing, the project is expected to lay the foundation for exploring further links between the oral microbiome and various diseases of aging.

The five-year project is funded by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Next-Gen Sequencing to Characterize Diverse Biofilm

Key investigators include Yijun Sun, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, and Michael Buck, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry, who directs the University at Buffalo’s Stem Cell Sequencing/Epigenomics Center.

Using about 2,600 patient plaque samples — both frozen and newly collected — they will generate and analyze a massive dataset with billions of data points.

Buck will design and implement an accurate, cost-effective and comprehensive next-generation sequencing approach to measure the dynamics of the oral microbial population in these samples over time.

Sun will perform bioinformatics analysis of the resulting datasets using innovative computational methods he has developed. Both researchers are collaborating to develop the best experimental and computational methods to understand the interplay between the microbiome in the mouth and the patients’ health. 

“The study will fill a critical gap in our knowledge of the role of the subgingival microbiome in periodontal disease severity and progression at older ages,” says Sun. “In the future, this information could inform strategies to prevent and treat periodontal disease.”

Long-Term Study of Common Disease in 1,000 Women

The research team will assess periodontal disease in 1,000 women, using information and samples collected over 15 years.

The researchers also will consider the women’s overall health and various lifestyle and personal factors, such as smoking habits, diet, obesity, diabetes and hormone use.

Periodontal disease — one of the most common in older adults — involves altered immune responses to inflammation caused by bacterial plaque in the subgingival area of the mouth. This is the area located beneath the gums and especially between the gums and the basal part of the crowns of the teeth.

Untreated inflammation and gum infection eventually results in tooth loss, and may increase the risk of stroke, heart attack and other health problems.

Some people are more genetically susceptible to gum diseases.

Seeking Insight Into How Bacteria Affect Health

Through their analysis, the researchers will be able to characterize the diverse subgingival biofilm more completely and in more detail than ever before. By lending insight into disease processes, this knowledge could lead to new targets for therapeutic intervention.

“I believe this is a new area of research that can increase our scientific understanding of how bacteria living in and on us affect our health — this is a phenomenal new opportunity,” says principal investigator Jean Wactawski-Wende, PhD, interim dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions and professor of epidemiology and environmental health.

“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.”

The project will use data and samples from the Buffalo OsteoPerio Study, an offshoot of the national Women’s Health Initiative that explored links between periodontal disease and osteoporosis in 1,300 women from Western New York.

Wactawski-Wende has led UB’s participation in the national initiative for more than two decades. She now directs its Northeast Regional Center, which involves nine institutions; she also chairs the national Steering Committee.

She is an adjunct professor in the medical school's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Multidisciplinary Researchers Collaborate

The oral microbiome project also involves: