Work on microbes earns honors for two dental researchers

January 17, 2006

Two University of Rochester Medical Center scientists who study ways to stop the microbes that cause cavities have been awarded international prizes for their research.

Oral biologist Hyun (Michel) Koo, D.D.S., Ph.D., and microbiologist Robert Marquis, Ph.D., both researchers in the Center for Oral Biology, will receive Distinguished Scientist Awards at a meeting in Australia in June of the International Association of Dental Research, the largest organization of dental researchers in the world. The awards recognize outstanding and innovative achievement in dental research worldwide.

Koo, who is on the faculty of the Eastman Department of Dentistry, has already established a track record of success and will receive the Young Investigator Award. Marquis, professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, will receive the Senior Investigator award for a lifetime of achievement.

Koo is a dentist who became interested in food science and has used his knowledge of both fields to try to stop bacteria like Streptococcus mutans that cause cavities. Such bacteria munch on the sugars that we eat and then secrete acids that dig holes in our teeth. Koo, who has been honored four times previously by IADR and has been with the University since 1999, seeks to identify specific compounds in foods and other natural products that help prevent cavities. He has identified compounds in propolis, a sticky substance made by honeybees to protect their hives, that inhibit the activity of a key enzyme that forms dental plaque. Currently he is studying whether certain components found in cranberry juice protect against cavities.

"Dr. Koo's work in this area helps us understand the pivotal role of nutrition in the development and prevention of dental decay," said Cyril Meyerowitz, D.D.S., M.S., chair of the Eastman Department of Dentistry and director of Eastman Dental Center.

Marquis is a microbial physiologist who studies how bacteria get the nutrients they need to stay alive. During the last two decades he has focused on the bacteria in our mouth, like S. mutans, that cause cavities. He discovered how such bacteria are able to stay alive amid the acid bath it creates in our mouths. Then he showed how preservatives commonly found in diet soda, frozen foods, juices, and other foods can muck up this defense mechanism, helping to prevent cavities by mimicking the cavity-preventing action of fluoride. Marquis, who has been on the University faculty since 1963, also has discovered a new way to kill bacterial spores, a method now used in the canning industry.

The awards showcase the University's role as one of the leading institutions in the world for dental research. University dentists were the first to demonstrate the protective role that saliva plays in preventing cavity formation, and they were the first to understand how fluoride works in the body, a significant contribution to its widespread use to protect against tooth decay. Its dental researchers also discovered how to make dental sealants better adhere to tooth enamel, leading to their widespread use to prevent dental decay, and they discovered a link between environmental pollutants like lead and cavities.

"Winning both the junior investigator award and the senior investigator award is a reflection of Rochester's status in the dental research arena," said William Bowen, B.D.S., Ph.D., who nominated both Marquis and Koo. Bowen himself is recognized around the world as a leading authority on the causes and prevention of tooth decay and is a member of the Institute of Medicine.

"Dental caries, or cavities, is the most widespread infectious disease in U.S. children. And more than 9 out of 10 adults have cavities, adversely affecting their eating habits at a point in life when good nutrition is crucial to their overall health," added Bowen.
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University of Rochester Medical Center

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