A rare disease under the microscope
"I love looking at damaged collagen,” says professor Laurent Bozec, a whiz at using atomic force microscopy to look at tissues at what he calls the nanometrology level. His lab analyzes samples at 1,000 to 10,000 times higher resolution than normal histology, and always with an eye to clinical implications.
“I work at the interface between traditional physics and dentistry clinical applications.”
Since 2013, he’s been interested in Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome — it affects 1.5 million people worldwide, while another 225 million have symptoms but no formal diagnosis — in which collagen dysfunction can cause stretchy and fragile skin, joint hypermobility and a range of oral, facial and dental problems.
This biophysicist hopes to impact patients with this rare disease thanks to a partnership with the GoodHope Ehlers Danlos Syndrome Clinic at University Health Network. Working with physician and clinical researcher Nimish Mittal, Bozec has been looking at skin samples of patients to find a biomarker for the disease.
Most people take an average of 15 years to get a diagnosis (a small subgroup can be identified with a genetic test). “So, that’s 15 years where your health insurance is not going to pick up the tab. Nobody believes that they are having these issues; people get told to stop complaining,” says Bozec.
After Bozec finds a diagnostic biomarker, he plans to influence collagen using peptides, and find personalized, local treatments to help with, say, a wound or a loose tooth. Currently, there are no pharmacological treatments for Ehlers-Danlos — patients rely on things like physiotherapy to stay as well as possible.
Bozec also does oral cancer research, predicting which lesions will lead to cancer based on collagen matrix changes, plus his lab is trying to prevent the degradation of the collagen around teeth during routine treatments such as root canals.
“I hope we can find some solutions for these patients,” His approach to scaffolding collagen during these dental processes will inform plans for treating Ehlers-Danlos. In turn, Bozec expects findings related to diagnosing and treating this rare disease to feed back into other research.
Bozec had to wait a long time before getting this work underway: it took seven years to get ethical approval, because it takes people with the condition a long time to heal after giving a sample. “I hope we can find some solutions for these patients,” he says. “Even if we can’t, we will still have done good research that has the potential to help others.”
To learn more about the latest research breakthroughs at the Faculty of Dentistry, read the latest issue of the U of T Dentistry Magazine 2023 Summer / Fall.
Written by: Diane Peters
Photo credit: Jeff Comber, IITS