We call it spit, spittle, dribble, drool or slobber. You can call it anything you like, but saliva is the catalyst that saves us from tooth decay. Besides washing food particles from in-between teeth and aiding in digestion, scientists may soon be adding another role to saliva’s repertoire of functions. Recent studies suggest that saliva may actually protect our teeth to a greater degree than first thought.
It has been determined that an active compound found in our saliva, called mucus, protects us from the bacteria streptococcus mutans that causes cavities. Basically our saliva is mostly made of water, at least 99.5 percent of human saliva to be exact. The other 0.5% that protects us from tooth decay is actually salivary mucins consisting of enzymes, electrolytes and glycol proteins. It’s also a compound that gives saliva its jelly-like texture. But recent studies indicate that it may do more than just provide a slippery gel that washes away cavity-causing bacteria. Its compounds may actually prevent bacteria from forming on teeth and developing into cavities in the first place.
Coauthors Erica Shapiro Frenkel of Harvard University, and Katharina Ribbeck, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have written about salivary mucins and their research findings in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
What makes their work so extraordinary is that it will have an effect on how dental professionals treat and prevent tooth decay in the future. Currently, as professionals we rely on fluoride treatments, dietary modifications, and composite sealants to prevent cavities or the spread of cavities. But this study may unleash a new profound concept to our approach. We can now bring our focus to enhancing a body’s natural defense mechanisms to combat dental bacteria and its cavity-causing spread giving us an advantage.
What the researchers saw was that salivary mucins did not directly kill or transform the bacteria, but the mucins actually suspended the bacteria in this liquid and decreased their ability to form biofilms on teeth. Without that slimy texture on our teeth, bacteria can form a biofilm where oral bacteria can breed. This biofilm assists with establishing communities of microbes that secrete polymers that stick to any surface, even a tooth’s surface to create cavity-causing bacteria. We call that community “plaque”.
Once the biofilm is formed from the bacteria’s sticky polymers, it can grow. Its organic compounds are then released as it metabolizes on the tooth enamel causing cavities. The focus of the researcher’s study was to find out how the salivary mucin reduced the ability of the S. mutans, or oral bacteria, to attach to the teeth and begin its formation of biofilm.
Within the oral cavity, biofilms can grow quite quickly, according to Frenkel, especially when the friendly bacteria or oral microbiome in our mouths is altered dramatically from their natural state. Frenkel and Ribbeck saw a better solution in focusing on the reduction of the bacterial growth that causes harm rather than the naturally “good” bacterial species that protect our teeth. While the salivary mucins did not kill the bacteria directly it simply suspended its subsequent attachment and production of biofilm in the first place.
The study was developed from previous research on gastric mucins on pigs that protected them against lung pathogens. Even some of the more well-known diseases like asthma, ulcerative colitis and cystic fibrosis have been linked to mucin production. This study adds to previous research that suggests that mucins do more than just play a structural role. This study suggests that mucins may even protect us from pathogens and enhance healthy microbial environments.
So while it may change how dentist approach cavities, it most certainly changes how scientists see microbe-host interactions. It not only protects the human body but can manipulate the surrounding microbes in their environment. This has tremendous outcomes in many diseases not just tooth decay.
At our Southfield Dental office, we make it a point to keep on top of all the newest advancements and techniques in dental health. Giving our customers the very best care in a relaxing, non-judgmental and pain-free environment is our priority. Call us today at 248-356-8790. Find out the difference a great dentist and dental team can make for you and your family.
Until Next Time,
Mark W Langberg, DDS, MAGD
Your Southfield Family Dentist
Tel: (248) 356-8790