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RIT & URMC Researchers Study Maternal Nutrition & Oral Health for Clues to Childhood Tooth Decay

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05/24/2023
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Researchers from Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester Medical Center are taking a closer look at nutritional factors during pregnancy and in infancy associated with severe tooth decay in young children.

Brenda Abu, assistant professor in RIT’s Wegmans School of Health and Nutrition and a researcher in maternal and child health, is collaborating on a study to investigate the Oral Microbiome in Early Infancy (OMEI) and Nutrition. Perinatal oral health expert Dr. Jin Xiao, associate professor at the Eastman Institute for Oral Health, is leading a large project funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Dental and Craniofacial Research.

The researchers will examine relationships between perinatal nutritive behavior—such as dietary iron intake—and nonnutritive behavior—such as pica—and the oral microbiome during pregnancy and early life. Abu and Xiao will assess the impact on infants’ early-life oral yeast colonization and infection and explore microbial compositions of pica substances. A two-year $380,000 award from the NIH supports Abu’s collaboration.

Pica is the compulsive eating of items lacking nutritional value. The behavior occurs most often in women and children, and substances consumed include seemingly harmless items, such as ice, or dangerous materials, such as dried paint, clay, soil, or metal. Pica may cause infections and deplete iron stores in pregnant women. The results can be devastating on maternal health and fetal development and carry long-lasting consequences, according to Abu.

“People who have iron deficiency crave the taste and smell of non-food substances that make iron deficiency worse,” Abu said. “Pregnant women who develop iron deficiency anemia have increased risk of miscarriages, low-birthweight babies, and other poor-birth outcomes.”

Other risk factors revealed from this study could inform prenatal counseling for underserved women and predict and prevent “Early Childhood Caries,” or severe tooth decay in young children. Xiao’s research among underserved racial and ethnic minority groups has shown that the presence of certain bacteria and yeast in the mother’s mouth increases the child’s likelihood of developing the condition.

“The OMEI + Nutrition is the first study that examines the relationship between nutritive and nonnutritive factors on perinatal oral microbiome among underserved U.S. pregnant women and their children,” said Dr. Xiao. “The data generated will strengthen the understanding of children’s oral microbiome development and their association to tooth decay.”

Abu’s collaboration with Xiao and other URMC researchers began with an earlier study assessing pica practice, oral health, and oral microbiome during pregnancy. The NIH award supports Abu’s career development and complements her international research focused on micronutrient nutrition and consequences among women and children living in Ghana. Findings from the current study exploring maternal nutrition and the oral microbiome in early infancy will influence the scope of Abu’s international research.

“With my training and expertise in nutrition, my long-term career goal is to bridge gaps in nutritional and oral research and generate groundbreaking interventions for early warning, early detections, and prevention of oral disease and iron deficiency among underserved mothers and young children,” Abu said.

Dr. Eli Eliav, professor and director of the UR’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health, is the adviser for the OMEI + Nutrition research. UR team members who will play key roles on the project include Steven Gill, professor of microbiology and immunology; Tong Tong Wu, associate professor of biostatistics and computational biology; and Dr. Kevin Fiscella, professor of family medicine. The entire team is listed online.

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Schedule17 Jun 2024