Bacteria in the mouth may increase the risk of heart disease

The study suggests another potential risk factor physicians might screen for to identify individuals at risk of heart disease.

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Coronary heart disease (CHD) is one of today’s most pressing public health issues and a leading cause of preventable death.

Heart disease is caused by a mix of hereditary and environmental risk factors, accounting for approximately one-third of all fatalities globally. Coronary heart disease, the most frequent kind of heart disease, is caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries that supply the heart with blood. It can also lead to blockages that cause heart attacks. Prior research has connected some illnesses to an increased risk of plaque buildup.

A new study from Professor Jacques Fellay’s group at EPFL has discovered that infection with a bacterium that causes gum disease and bad breath can increase the risk of heart disease. The study was published in the journal eLife.

Lead author Flavia Hodel, a former Ph.D. student at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences, said, “Although enormous progress has been made in understanding how coronary heart disease develops, our understanding of how infections, inflammation, and genetic risk factors contribute is still incomplete.”

“We wanted to help fill some of the gaps in our understanding of coronary heart disease by taking a more comprehensive look at the role of infections.”

The study suggests another potential risk factor physicians might screen for to identify individuals at risk of heart disease. It might also mean that treatment for colonization or infection with the oral bacteria Fusobacterium nucleatum could help minimize the risk of heart disease.

Hodel and her colleagues examined genetic information, health data, and blood samples from a subset of 3,459 people in the CoLaus|PsyCoLaus study, a Swiss population-based cohort. During the 12-year follow-up period, approximately 6% of the participants had a heart attack or another harmful cardiovascular event.

The researchers looked for antibodies against 15 different viruses, six bacteria, and one parasite in blood samples from participants. After controlling for known cardiovascular risk factors, the researchers discovered that antibodies against F. nucleatum, a sign of previous or current infection with the bacterium, were associated with a slightly increased risk of a cardiovascular event.

Hodel said, “F. nucleatum might contribute to cardiovascular risk through increased systemic inflammation due to bacterial presence in the mouth or through direct colonization of the arterial walls or plaque lining the arterial walls”

Jacques Fellay, who also heads the Precision Medicine Unit at Lausanne University Hospital and the University of Lausanne, said, “Our study adds to growing evidence that inflammation triggered by infections may contribute to the development of coronary heart disease and increase the risk of a heart attack.”

“Our results may lead to new ways of identifying high-risk individuals or lay the groundwork for studies of preventive interventions that treat F. nucleatum infections to protect the heart.”

The researchers also confirmed that people with high genetic risk scores for coronary heart disease have an increased risk of cardiovascular events, which is consistent with previous research. Suppose future studies confirm the link between F. nucleatum and heart disease, in that case, the researchers believe it will lead to new approaches to identifying and preventing cardiovascular events.

The research will be published in an upcoming Special Issue of eLife on systems genetics.

Journal Reference:

  1. Flavia Hodel, Zhi Ming Xu et al. Associations of genetic and infectious risk factors with coronary heart disease. eLife. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.79742
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