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Study Looks Into Factors Behind Early Childhood Caries Epidemic

Juanmonino / E+

Northern Arizona University (NAU) has received a $224,000 grant from the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission to help identify the biological factors behind the early childhood caries epidemic in Arizona. According to NAU, 40% of the state’s preschoolers have experienced caries, and the number is even higher among the more rural and economically disadvantaged Hispanic and Native American populations of Northern Arizona.

Led by Viacheslav Fofanov, PhD, MS, a bioinformatician and assistant professor at NAU, an interdisciplinary team is researching the root causes and developing solutions to the epidemic. The researchers speculate two strains of cariogenic bacteria that are commonly passed to the child by the primary caregiver — Streptococcus sabrinas and Streptococcus mutans — may have a unique evolutionary history in Arizona. According to the university, investigators theorize that, compared to other populations, “Arizonans have bacteria that metabolize carbohydrates more slowly, lowering pH levels in the oral cavity and demineralizing dental enamel,” which increases caries risk.

The team is working with the nonprofit agencies SMART Smiles and First Things First to collect oral biofilm samples from 400 underserved children. As part of efforts to reduce the prevalence of early childhood caries in Arizona, the researchers will perform genomic sequencing to determine if, and in what ways, these bacterial strains differ from other populations. It is hoped this data will lead to more effective preventive, treatment and educational efforts to address the epidemic.

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