Mouth microbes may help shape immune system, says Stanford research team

STANFORD, Calif. - The immune system may be shaped by some of the very agents it exists to fight, according to research by David Relman, MD, associate professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

"Microbes not only provide functions that promote health, but may actually guide the stages of our own immune system development," said Relman. "It seems reasonable to propose that only until we have an idea of the make-up and variability of the microbial ecosystems living within us do we begin to get an idea of the mechanisms underlying the functions they perform, such as immune system maturation and defense against pathogens."

Relman will present an overview of his lab's work on this subject, along with some new findings Feb. 16 as part of the "Innate Immunity and Oral Health" program at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

The mouth provides a thriving community of microbes and a unique field in which to study how these tiny creatures interact with their hosts. Relman's group has concentrated efforts on the subgingival crevice - the deep gap between the gums and teeth - in their search for microbes. Even though almost 500 bacterial strains or species have been identified in this oral pocket, Relman believes there remains a substantial amount to be learned about their behavior and response to perturbation, such as brushing and flossing, and environmental insults such as being attacked by the immune system.

Some of the most basic kinds of questions remain unanswered in the microbial world, said Relman. While there is a general consensus that bacteria play a role in causing gum disease, no single microbe has been implicated as the culprit. "The details on how oral microbes cause disease is probably not a simple story," said Relman. "One agent does not equal one disease. There are complex interactions between members of the oral flora

Contact: Mitzi Baker
Stanford University Medical Center

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