Bacteria and Tooth Decay

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The primary bacteria responsible for tooth decay, Strep. mutans, has the specialized ability to survive in acid. Unfortunately, the breakdown of carbohydrates creates an acid environment that reduces other less harmful bacteria while the Strep. mutans can thrive and cause tooth decay. One of the reasons is the ability of Strep. mutans to make the fatty acid enzyme called FabM, which protects it from acid attack. When researchers shut down the production of FabM the Strep. mutans became almost 10,000 times more vulnerable to acid damage. Further research has shown FabM or close relatives may be responsible for all Strep. and Staph. bacteria’s resistance to the body’s defenses. These families of bacteria are responsible for meningitis, pneumonia, “flesh eating infections”, as well as infections around heart valves and stents.

The University of Rochester Medical Center has received a grant from the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research to investigate FabM and other bacterial proteins. These studies could lead to our ability to develop a multi-prong attack on bacteria instead of the current single-prong antibiotic therapies. “Our goal is to force the major bacterium behind tooth decay to destroy itself with its own acid as soon as it eats sugar,” said principal investigator Robert G. Quivey, PhD. In addition to helping prevent cavities, it may also lead to new antibacterial combination therapies for other types of infections that have become resistant to currently available treatment.