WVU School of Dentistry researchers earn new grant money from NIH

Study helps explain high dental disease rates in rural Appalachia

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh will now be able to recruit 150 more families into the largest oral health study ever done in Appalachia thanks to a $750,000 grant extension from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The West Virginia families in the study, which has spanned seven years, live in Webster and Nicholas Counties. Two Pennsylvania towns –  Burgettstown and Bradford – are also part of the study, which involves the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa.  The new money will create a study population of almost 700 families.

“This research has provided the first scientific evidence of psychological factors and other environmental factors that may be at play in Appalachia, including fear of the dentist,” said Richard Crout, D.M.D., Ph.D., an expert on gum disease and associate dean for research in the West Virginia University School of Dentistry. He is directing the West Virginia portion of the research.

Discoveries about the genetics of the main microorganism that causes cavities have also been groundbreaking.

“Although the streptococcus bacterium looks the same under the microscope, we discovered that it is more virulent because of its genetic makeup,” Crout explained.

The researchers suspect that other health problems prevalent in West Virginia such as cardiovascular disease and stroke may be related to the high rates of gum disease because
Inflammation from periodontitis, or severe gum disease, can travel throughout the body.

Previous research has shown that a person with periodontitis is twice as likely to have a heart attack and almost three times more likely to have a stroke, Crout said. Premature births go down when pregnant women with gum disease have their teeth cleaned at the dentist’s office. And last year, WVU researchers published research establishing a link between gum disease and mild to moderate memory loss.

“What surprised me most after seven years of study was discovering high rates of the more severe form of gum disease called periodontitis in rural Appalachia,” Crout said.  “More than 80 percent of adults in the study showed signs of periodontitis.”

As for children, one of the latest findings is that kids aged 2 to 5 in West Virginia have 144 percent more cavities than children elsewhere in the nation, Crout said.

“The evidence we’ve gathered that there are such high rates of gum disease is pivotal,” he said. “It greatly increases our motivation to develop interventions to help reduce the amount of gum disease that we see. This research reinforces more than ever the importance of people seeing a dentist regularly along with proper brushing at least twice a day and flossing at least once a day.” 

Unlike gingivitis, which is reversible, untreated periodontitis can create infections below the gum line leading to loss of bone and teeth. Periodontitis can progress with no symptoms, and it can spread without causing pain.

WVU’s portion of the initial, seven-year NIH grant has been approximately $3.12 million, with $152,462 of the extension coming to WVU.

The NIH-funded study is part of COHRA – the Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia, which began in 2002.  Founding faculty members include Crout and colleagues Dan McNeil, Ph.D., and John Thomas, Ph.D., of WVU, and Robert Weyant, Dr.P.H., and Mary Marazita, Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh.

 For research abstracts from the COHRA study see http://www.dental.pitt.edu/research/abstracts.php.

For information on the WVU School of Dentistry see http://www.hsc.wvu.edu/sod/.




For more information:
Andrea Brunais, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087
AB: 06-16-09

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