The Cellular Crusader
BY JAMIE WETHERBE MA ’04
Assistant Professor Jian Xu is making a big impact on the dental world by studying our cell’s smallest parts.
Her work on chromatin modification examines how enzymes methylate proteins — basically, how cells turn signals on and off, like a light switch, and how this impacts chronic diseases.
Enzymes use these core proteins for several reasons, including receiving and sending information. For example, if there’s chronic inflammation in a tooth — whether caused by a simple bacterial infection or something more sinister like HIV — the rest of the body needs to know, so it can fight off disease.
“To do this, the cell has to actively make proteins to produce this information and communicate to adjacent cells,” Xu explains.
By focusing on a specific enzyme that helps regulate chronic inflammation, Xu and her team have developed a topical cream that removes this enzyme altogether, actually inducing mouth inflammation.
Knowing that removing the enzyme causes inflammation, Xu is investigating whether adding a synthetic protein to a patient’s mouth could trigger the body’s immune reaction and perhaps eventually cure periodontitis.
“Periodontitis is still treated with antibiotics,” she says. “But if we can create a cream with a local effect, it won’t have a systemic impact.”
Xu hopes this same concept can eventually be applied to other chronic diseases.
“Inflammation is a huge problem for diabetics, and there aren’t efficient treatments,” she says. “By manipulating the pathway to have faster resolution in the oral cavity, we could help patients resolve inflammation in the mouth or other areas. That’s the long-term goal.”
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This story originally appeared in the TroDent, the official publication for the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC. Read more stories like this in our Spring 2018 issue.
Posted May 2018