Photo courtesy of the University at BuffaloBUFFALO, N.Y. —The University at Buffalo is establishing a new center to conduct research on the human microbiome, the collective microorganisms that live on and in the human body. The goal of research conducted at the center is to develop a base of knowledge about the human microbiome and its role in health and disease.
The multidisciplinary UB Center for Microbiome Research will be directed by Robert J. Genco, DDS, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Oral Biology in the School of Dental Medicine, who also has appointments in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, and the Department of Immunology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Effective May 1, Genco will leave his post as director of the Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR) to head the center. “Bob is stepping down from STOR to pursue research, his first passion,” said Venu Govindaraju, PhD, vice president for research and economic development, “but those of us who have worked with him over the past 14 years that he has directed STOR know that guiding UB innovations toward commercialization has always been close to his heart as well. His robust understanding of the often unpredictable trajectory of scientific research has made him an outstanding advocate for our faculty innovators. Over the years, Bob has instilled in this university a dynamic climate in which faculty entrepreneurs are increasingly successful.”
Formerly chair of the Department of Oral Biology for 25 years, current director of the Periodontal Disease Clinical Research Center and a member of the National Academy of Medicine, Genco is an expert in the microbiome and a pioneer in the study of the impact that oral health has on overall health. He and his colleagues were among the first to report a connection between gum disease and heart disease and stroke, and led studies relating periodontitis to diabetes and obesity.
“Under Dr. Genco’s leadership, UB’s new Center for Microbiome Research clearly leverages the rich resources our investigators have already developed here in the School of Dental Medicine and throughout the entire university in order to explore the microbiome and its extraordinary implications for human health and disease,” said Joseph J. Zambon, DDS, PhD, interim dean and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, UB School of Dental Medicine.
Genco said that studies of the microbiome “promise to transform life sciences, leading to new approaches to controlling disease and maintaining health.”
Some of the areas he and his colleagues will focus on include why people with diabetes are at higher risk for periodontal disease.
“We will be asking if the oral and intestinal microbiomes are different in patients with diabetes and, if so, should that signal a different approach to managing these patients?” said Genco. “We’ll also look at the microbiome in pregnant women to better understand the role of the placental and fetal microbiome in the health and disease of the fetus. We’re interested in the periodontal status of pregnant women who have gestational diabetes and how what we know about the microbiome might help develop new treatments for them.”
The new center will focus, in part, on the oral microbiome, which has been a key interest of UB researchers, and its relationship to the microbiome in other sites in the body.
Genco and his colleagues will have access to thousands of samples of periodontal disease and extensive health information from 4,000 postmenopausal women who participated in the Buffalo OsteoPerio study, led by Jean Wactawski-Wende, PhD, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions, as well as from 1,600 subjects in the Buffalo Myocardial Infarction Periodontal Study.
The new center will collaborate with researchers in the Genome, the Environment and the Microbiome (GEM), one of UB’s Communities of Excellence, as well as with those conducting research under Wactawski-Wende, principal investigator on a $3.9 million National Institutes of Health grant, a prospective study of the oral microbiome and periodontitis in postmenopausal women.
“The establishment of the Center for Microbiome Research at UB provides the university with the ability to pursue so many opportunities in this exciting field, which has such deep roots at UB,” said Wactawski-Wende. “The ability of this new center to support UB research on the microbiome will be entirely complementary to avenues we are pursuing on the NIH grant.”
According to Genco, the explosion of interest in studying the microbiome is partly a result of new technologies that are making the study of the microbiome far more feasible and less expensive than they had been in the past.
“Previously, if you wanted to study bacteria in the mouth, you had to grow them in culture,” he explained, “but roughly half the oral bacteria cannot be cultured. Now, powerful methods like nucleic acid sequencing techniques allow us to identify and determine the relative abundance of most, if not all, of the organisms at that and other sites in nature. These techniques have revolutionized the study of microbes, including viruses and fungi, since all of them can be studied using these sequencing techniques.”
These analytical techniques tailored for study of the microbiome are already available at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, Genomics Core and Specialized Bioinformatics, where much of the new center’s research will be conducted.
Clinical studies will be carried out in the School of Dental Medicine in its Periodontal Disease Research Center as well as the Center for Preventive Medicine in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions and the Clinical and Translational Research Center (CTRC). Laboratory studies will be carried out in the School of Dental Medicine and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
UB faculty involved in the Center for Microbiome Research are:
- Robert Baker, MD, professor, Department of Pediatrics, Digestive Diseases and Nutrition Center, Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.
- Susan Baker, MD, PhD, professor, Department of Pediatrics and Digestive Diseases and Nutrition Center, Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.
- Vanessa M. Barnabei, MD, PhD, professor and chair, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
- Michael Buck, PhD, associate professor in the departments of Biochemistry and Biomedical Informatics, co-director of the UB Genomics and Bioinformatics facility and director of the WNYSTEM Stem Cell Sequencing/Epigenomics Facility.
- Karen Falkner, PhD, clinical coordinator, Department of Oral Biology.
- Jo Freudenheim, PhD, UB Distinguished Professor, Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health.
- Timothy F. Murphy MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and director, CTRC, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
- Norma Nowak, PhD, professor, Department of Biochemistry and executive director of UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.
- Frank A. Scannapieco, DMD, professor and chair, Department of Oral Biology.
- Robert Schifferle, DDS, PhD, associate professor, departments of Periodontics and Endodontics and Oral Biology.
- Yijun Sun, PhD, assistant professor of bioinformatics in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
- John E. Tomaszewski, MD, FASCP, professor and chair, Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences and professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics.
- Jean Wactawski-Wende, PhD, dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor, School of Public Health and Health Professions.
- Joseph J. Zambon, DDS, PhD, interim dean and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, School of Dental Medicine.