Human mucosal diseases: OHSU scientist awarded $7.8 million to study oral microbiome

Complex and dynamic communities of microbes in habitats throughout the human body — including the gut, skin, and mouth — make up the microbiome. Imbalances in these microbial communities have a fundamental role in human health. An imbalance in the oral microbiome is responsible for many common oral diseases, ranging from dental caries to systemic abscesses.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research has granted the Sustaining Outstanding Achievement in Research Award to Justin Merritt, Ph.D., to help advance his research into the roles of microbial ecology and genetics among the oral microbiome. The $7.8 million SOAR award is among the largest individual grants provided by NIDCR and is intended to provide stable, long-term funding to mid-career investigators producing significant research for the pursuit of potentially transformative research programs.

Merritt talked about his path to science during Research Week 2018. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Merritt, professor in the Department of Restorative Dentistry and affiliate professor in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, School of Medicine, investigates the roles of microbial ecology, genetics and environmental factors among the microbiome in both healthy and diseased states. His lab’s research is shedding light on the etiology of human mucosal diseases. New understandings of the microbiome could contribute to new ecological treatment strategies that reestablish symbiosis among the flora.

Merritt’s lab uses the human oral flora as a model system for the role of microbial ecology in determining health and disease at mucosal sites across the human body. His team brings together experts in oral bacterial genetics and the application of a state-of-the-art genetic system. A key collaborator, Timothy Nice, Ph.D., will provide immunology expertise to Merritt’s lab. Nice, assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, School of Medicine, focuses his research on host-microbe interactions in the intestine.

This award is also the largest individual grant ever awarded to the OHSU School of Dentistry. The grant will augment the Merritt lab’s existing projects and support new research in this understudied area with significant clinical implications.