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Study offers new insights into link between oral hygiene and heart health

If you've been a bit lax lately about daily flossing and brushing, here's some motivation to spend more time polishing your pearly whites. New research published in the current issue of Infection and Immunity shows how cavity-causing microbes can attack the heart.

In the study, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center investigated how a bacterium known as Streptococcus mutans, typically found in dental plaque, is able to colonize the heart, causing a dangerous and potentially lethal condition called endocarditis.

Findings showed the bacterium commonly gains access to the bloodstream after a dental procedure or vigorous flossing and then travels to the heart with the help of a specific protein, according to a release:

[Scientists] discovered that a collagen-binding protein known as CNM gives S. mutans its ability to invade heart tissue. In laboratory experiments, scientists found that strains with CNM are able to invade heart cells, and strains without CNM are not.


The team also studied the response of wax worms to the various strains of S. mutans. They found that strains without CNM were rarely lethal to the worms, while strains with the protein were lethal 90 percent of the time. Then, when [scientists] knocked out CNM in those strains, they were no longer lethal – those worms thrived.

Researchers have identified five specific strains of S. mutans that carry the CNM protein, out of more than three dozen strains examined. They hope the findings will aid in development of a new screening tool, such as a cheek swab or spit test, to determine a dental patient’s vulnerability to endocarditis.

Previously: Anti-plaque bacteria: Coming soon to your toothpaste?
Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

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