While there have been numerous links between poor oral health and a multitude of physical ailments and disease, there is a difference between a link and a proven mechanism.
In other words, a link is when there is a significant number of individuals that have bad oral health and that also have an above average rate of some physical problem, such as diabetes, heart disease or cancer.
So, while researchers have long noticed, for example, that people with periodontitis (this is a condition of inflammation around the tooth, comes from Latin: peri means “around” and odont means “tooth”) often have a higher rate of pancreatic cancer they only saw this as a link, but did not have a proven mechanism that could cause this form of cancer.
In 2016, a team of researchers at the New York University of Medicine presented results of a study where they had found direct evidence of the link between the bacteria involved in oral disease and the increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
While they, and other researchers, had long known that people with pancreatic cancer where also known to be more likely to suffer from oral health issues and gum disease they did not know what the direct link might be.
Why would this be important to know? Well, for one thing there are over 40,000 deaths in the US annually from pancreatic cancer. This form of cancer can be tough to catch as not only can it spread without detection but many of its symptoms resemble other disease.
And as early diagnosis can mean a high chance of recovery then proving a link between the bacteria related to periodontal disease and the development of pancreatic cancer provides a powerful key to detection.
The researchers found that link. By studying the oral microbiome (basically the bacterial culture in one’s mouth) they showed that the presence of certain bacteria related to periodontal disease (two bacteria with very complicated names) meant an increased risk factor–as high as 60%–that a person could develop pancreatic cancer.
As one senior investigator, Jiyoung Ahn, PhD, said, “Our study offers the first direct evidence that specific changes in the microbial mix in the mouth… represent a likely risk factor for pancreatic cancer… These bacterial changes in the mouth could potentially show us who is most at risk of developing pancreatic cancer.”
However, it was not until 2018 that researchers in Sweden actually found the mechanism behind this link. Significantly to us all, they were investigating not just the link between periodontitis and pancreatic cancer but to general cancer mortality across the boards.
Keeping it simple, the periodontal-active bacteria produces a virulent (means something very poisonous) enzyme that degrades or breaks down protein bonds. The researchers also found that this same enzyme occurs in other malignant tumors. (It is called the Td-CTLP, or just CTLP, enzyme)
How does this enzyme work in relation to cancer? Well, the CTLP enzyme activates other enzymes that the cancer cells use to “hitch a ride” into healthy cells. And, to make matters worse, the CTLP enzyme actually weakens the immune system-for instance by shutting down the body’s guard type molecules that would normally inhibit the enzymes from acting.
What happens is that periodontitis causes continual, low-grade inflammation. This condition helps spread the bacteria (and the enzymes they produce) throughout the body. Once they spread, these bacteria then take their place in the overall developmental process of cancer.
And in this manner, these researchers proved an actual mechanism behind periodontitis and a significantly higher risk of cancer.
NOTE–If you are interested in the scientific studies then here is a link to those papers:
First, you should read our blog post on the the "10 Steps to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer" that was researched by the World Cancer Research Fund.
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Fresher breath, stronger teeth, healthier gums, fewer colds and a lowered risk of cancer… we think these are worth the few minutes a day that it takes to ensure great oral health.
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