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Corralling an emerging pathogen

Published: June 24 2008

Corralling an emerging pathogen

Ann Progulske-Fox

Professor of Oral Biology
College of Dentistry

It isn’t West Nile Virus or bird flu… It’s the vicious bacteria that causes gum disease.

“The National Institutes of Health include under the umbrella of emerging pathogens chronic diseases that are recently recognized as being infectious,” said Ann Progulske-Fox, professor of oral biology at the University of Florida College of Dentistry. “For example, cardiovascular disease, which was thought not to have anything to do with infections, is now looking more and more like an infectious disease.”

Deadly cardiovascular disease has previously been linked with periodontal, or gum, disease, but the presence of live oral bacteria in blood vessel tissues had not been proven beyond doubt until Progulske-Fox’s lab dredged them out of diseased human arterial plaque.

Oral bacteria as an emerging pathogen may surprise some, but not Progulske-Fox. She’s one of the world’s leading bacteriologists examining the genes the bacteria uses to infect the human host. Her work was recognized this year by the International Association of Dental Research with the Distinguished Scientist Award for Basic Research in Periodontal Disease.

The oral microbe she studies, Porphyromonas gingivalis, is a nasty bug that invades the oral cavity, destroying gum and bone tissues leading to the inflamed, bleeding gums and tooth loss of periodontal disease.

The bacteria’s cell-dissolving bent apparently makes it possible for it to breech the barriers separating oral tissues from the bloodstream. The presence of this oral pathogen as an infection of blood vessel tissues seems to contribute to the build-up and instability of arterial plaque, leading to heart attack and stroke.

Progulske-Fox is now collaborating with investigators in the College of Medicine’s department of neurosurgery to understand how the bacteria contribute to cardiovascular disease, and to examine whether the infection may also play a role in weakening vessel walls leading to brain aneurysms.

She’s also working with researchers at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill to understand the link between periodontal disease and premature birth and low birth weight, which are seven times more common for babies born to women infected with periodontal disease.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is part of Progulske-Fox’s work ethic. She’s served as chairwoman of the university’s Task Force on Bioterrorism and played a major role in establishing the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. Now that the institute has gained federal and state endorsement, Progulske-Fox continues to be a crucial member of the institute’s advisory board.

“The University of Florida is one of five universities in the nation with all of the major colleges on one campus,” Progulske-Fox said. “We thus have tremendous expertise in a whole number of areas and are uniquely situated among all universities in the country to be able to take a holistic view of applications and the use of technologies from all areas to study emerging pathogens.”

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