CASE WESTERN (US)—Researchers are working to block a common bacterium that is harmless in a mother’s mouth, but can turn deadly when it reaches an unborn child.

The bacterium, Fusobacterium nucleatum, becomes destructive once it leaves the mouth and enters the blood stream. The invasion of the bacteria through the placenta then allows it  to multiply rapidly in the immune-free environment that protects the fetus, causing the placenta to become inflamed, which in turn, can trigger preterm birth and fetal death.

Yiping Han, associate professor at the Case Western Reserve University, has discovered an adhesin protein molecule, called FadA, in the genes of F. nucleatum, which 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’s research group will look not only at the binding agent but the receptors on the host epithelial and endothelial cells that promote the binding of the oral bacteria.

“In some way, the receptors on the host cell activate a signal that puts into action a cascade of processes that allow the bacteria to penetrate the epithelial and endothelial linings and then colonize,” explains Han. “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.”

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

Periodontal disease has been linked to such health problem as arthritis, diabetes and heart disease.

Han’s research, which was reported in the  journal Infection and Immunity, is being funded by a five year grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research at the National Institutes of Health.

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