Finding Links between Oral and Systemic Disease

Jake Jinkun Chen, a professor of periodontology, explores diabetes, cancer, bone development, and Alzheimer's

Jake Jinkun Chen, DI09, investigates the connections between health problems that affect our mouths and those that affect our whole bodies: for example, the connections between diabetes and gum disease. A professor of periodontology and director of the Division of Oral Biology at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, he leads a team that has studied subjects as diverse as bone development, Alzheimer’s, and cancer—and, in recent years, has received more than $12 million in grants to do so. One of his current goals is to develop a drug to treat diabetic bone disease (DBD).

Thwarting Inflammation

In recent years, Chen’s work has focused on diabetes-associated periodontitis, a severe gum infection that can lead to loss of teeth and other health issues. Periodontitis is difficult to treat in patients with Type 2 diabetes, which can cause inflammation throughout the body, including the gums. But there may be a solution: adiponectin. This hormone secreted by fatty tissue has multiple functions in treating periodontal disease. Chen’s team synthesized a substance they named AdipoAI (for adipo-anti-inflammation), which has similar but much stronger anti-inflammatory properties than adiponectin and could help treat inflammatory diseases. Chen plans to apply for a clinical trial to use AdipoAI to study the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes-associated periodontitis.

An Alzheimer’s Connection

Diabetes is just one of many diseases that can be linked to gum and bone infections. In a recently published paper, Chen’s team and collaborators detail how a specific periodontal pathogen can accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s. Chen hopes to pursue further research in this area with the support of a National Institutes of Health grant.

One Man’s Trash

In other ongoing research, Chen’s team has studied microRNA, a type of molecule that regulates the production of proteins in cells. For years, researchers thought of microRNAs as “garbage genes,” Chen said, but his team found otherwise. “Nature is very economical,” Chen added. “It doesn’t produce useless things. We found the noncoding RNAs play a very important role in biology and human diseases.” Chen’s team identified specific long noncoding RNA (lncRNA) that could be used to treat atherosclerosis—hardening of the arteries—periodontitis, diabetes, and cancer. “This lncRNA has a great potential in drug development,” Chen said. His team also identified another specific noncoding RNA that has a strong effect on bone formation and regeneration. The research established that it could be used to help regenerate bone tissue lost due to conditions such as cancer, tumors, and genetic diseases.

Back to Top