Research to Explore Possible Link Between Periodontitis and Oral Cancer

Dentistry Today


Researchers at the University of Plymouth’s Institute of Translational and Stratified Medicine Oral Microbiome Research Group and Peninsula Dental School are exploring possible links between the bacteria that cause gum disease and the progression of oral cancer.

Cancer needs blood vessels to grow and spread. The researchers, then, are aiming to build on evidence that shows how the bacteria that cause periodontitis are linked to blood vessel formation, or angiogenesis. They will grow tumors and blood vessels in the laboratory and add bacteria to identify what effect they have on the blood vessels as well as how they operate.

Blood vessels that supply tumors grow and work differently from normal blood vessels. If the research shows that bacteria make the blood vessels grow more rapidly and similarly to those connected with tumors and identify the process by which they do this, it could form the basis of a new screening program to treat or detect the cancer risk earlier, the researchers said.

“We know that tumors in the mouth, unlike many other tumors, are in constant contact with bacteria, but we don’t know exactly how the bacteria affect tumor and vessel growth yet,” said Louise Belfield, PhD, lecturer in biomedical sciences at the Peninsula Dental School. 

“The bacteria may not cause the cancer, but they may do something to make the progression of the cancer speed up. One way they could do this is via the blood vessels, encouraging them to grow more rapidly or in a way which helps the tumor to grow. So if we find out what this is and how it works, it can help us develop and put screening processes in place to detect and reduce the numbers of those bacteria,” said Belfield.

“Cancer cannot grow more than 2 mm in diameter without blood vessels, and existing evidence suggests that bacteria found in gum disease can stimulate blood vessel growth, so we’re hopeful about the results,” said Belfield.

“In addition, bacteria that cause gum disease could gain a portal of entry to the bloodstream, and therefore the rest of the body, via the gumline. So by addressing gum disease in the first instance, it could prevent other inflammatory diseases too,” Belfield said. 

“Oral cancer is seriously underfunded within the UK, especially as it affects as many people as leukemia. Treatments for oral cancer haven’t changed or progresses in the same way others have, so it would be a positive step to help tackle prospective cases,” said Dr. Zoe Brookes, PhD, BDS, clinical lecturer in undergraduate dental studies. 

“Whatever this research shows, the evidence all points to maintaining good oral hygiene to lower the risk of gum disease and keep a healthy bacteria balance in the mouth,” Brookes said.

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