Asst. Prof. Chiara Ghezzi Will Study Interactions Between Gum Tissue and Microbes in the Mouth

Asst. Prof. Chiara Ghezzi
Asst. Prof. Chiara Ghezzi's research interests include biomaterials, natural polymers, tissue engineering, tissue models, host-tissue interactions and biomaterial design for clinical translation.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

The human body is inhabited by many different, but interconnected, populations of microbes. Some microbes can make us sick, while others are beneficial to our health. Their balance – or imbalance – with each other and their surrounding tissues can exert long-lasting and wide-ranging effects on our overall state of health. 
Biomedical Engineering Asst. Prof. Chiara Ghezzi is particularly interested in studying the microbiota, or range of microorganisms, found in the mouth. Those organisms could play a key role in an individual’s overall health and well-being. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, poor oral health is often associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
“The oral cavity serves as a potential reservoir for opportunistic pathogenic bacteria that can spread systematically to other parts of the body,” Ghezzi says. “However, very little is known about the relationship of various diseases and the oral microbiome.”
In recognition of the importance of Ghezzi’s research, the National Science Foundation has awarded her its prestigious faculty early career development award. Called the CAREER award, this highly competitive annual program selects the nation’s best young university faculty-scholars “who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization,” according to the agency.
Oral health and disease
The oral cavity serves as a potential reservoir for opportunistic pathogenic bacteria that can spread systematically to other parts of the body, according to Ghezzi.
Ghezzi will use her five-year, $650,000 CAREER grant to understand the connection between human oral tissue and the oral microbiome, and how they interact, by creating a model of the human gum tissue system in her laboratory. 
“This is the first time a tissue model will be capable of recreating and sustaining long-term interactions between human microbiome and host tissue in vitro,” she explains. “Previous attempts have failed 24 hours after the two were placed in contact with each other. The microbes’ metabolic activity took over the entire culture, resulting in the rapid depletion of the host tissue component.”
Ghezzi, who is a faculty member of UML’s Center for Pathogen Research and Training, hopes the project will lead to the identification of predictive disease biomarkers within the oral microbiota and beyond.
“These biomarkers could ultimately contribute to the early-stage diagnosis, prevention and treatment of a wide spectrum of chronic diseases, such as periodontitis, atopic dermatitis, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, colorectal and pancreatic cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease,” she notes.
The biomarkers could also provide a timely and cost-effective diagnostic option, which could help address the growing racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities among the U.S. population in terms of being able to afford the current associated costs of oral disease diagnosis and treatment.
“In particular, among working-age American adults, more than 40% of low-income and nearly twice as many non-Hispanic Black or Mexican American adults suffer from periodontitis-related conditions, which negatively impact their quality of life and productivity.”
Ghezzi’s research collaborators include Biology Prof. Peter Gaines and Dr. Hatice Hasturk of the ADA Forsyth Institute.
Assisting Ghezzi in the laboratory work are biomedical engineering Ph.D. students Anyelo Diaz and Grace Callen and junior student Sydney Campano.