Chew on this: Gum disease ups risk for certain cancers

There is no dispute that oral health affects overall health – gum disease has been linked to serious health conditions, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis and pneumonia.

Now comes news that raises the stakes even higher: A study from Scandinavia has shown that the bacteria associated with gum disease might also increase the risk of certain types of cancer.

The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, shows that the bacterium that causes gum disease shares an enzyme with certain cancers, including gastrointestinal and pancreatic cancers. This bacterium, “treponema denticola chymotrypsin-like proteinase” (CTLP for short), is a main “boosting” agent in the development of gum disease.

Vero Beach dentist Dr. Bradley Reiner says, “We are finding CTLP in the majority of oral, tonsillar gastric, pancreatic, colon adenocarcinomas and esophageal squamous cell carcinoma tumor samples, which are collectively called orodigestive cancers.”

The researchers also discovered that, in addition to CTLP itself being found in the mouth and in some types of cancer, it can weaken the body’s immune system by activating other enzymes that cancer cells use to attack healthy cells. In simpler terms, the CTLP enzyme gives cancer-friendly enzymes more of a chance to do their worst.

The incidence of gum disease – more formally called periodontitis – rises with age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 70 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 65 have gum disease, characterized by inflammation of the tissue surrounding the gums or the base of the teeth.  This inflammation, called gingivitis, pushes bacteria into the bloodstream, which can cause the associated health problems.

Dr. Reiner notes that although there is a higher incidence in the older population, periodontitis is also common among younger people; it is present in 47 percent of people over the age of 30. He says “periodontal disease is one of the most prevalent of all human diseases and is transmittable – you can actually ‘catch’ it.”

Periodontitis is caused by bacterial plaque; sugared drinks and starchy foods lead to the growth of bacteria, especially when consumed frequently and left on the teeth. Any bleeding while brushing teeth is a sign of gingivitis, and a cause for concern.

The study was conducted by scientists at the University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Hospital in Finland, and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Team leader Timo Sorsa, a professor at the University of Helsinki, conducted a supplementary study on the link between the incidence of gum disease and the rates of cancer-related death.

In that study, Professor Sorsa and his colleagues analyzed data from over 68,000 adults, sourced over a 10-year period. Alarmingly, they found a strong association between gum disease and death caused by pancreatic cancer. This research was published in the International Journal of Cancer.

Looking at the two studies in tandem, Sorsa concludes that the inflammation characteristic of gum disease may make it easier for harmful bacteria to travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, allowing their “virulence” (disease-causing) factors, such as CTLP, to boost the activity of cancer cells.

Adds Dr. Reiner: “Recent studies from the American Association for Cancer Research and the American Dental Association independently agreed that there is a 14 percent increase in the risk of cancer overall individuals who have periodontal disease.”

There are lab tests that determine the presence of the CTLP bacterium as well as other bacteria that can cause periodontitis. Dr. Reiner says the availability of these tests can make a real difference in the health of the community, adding, “I believe that very soon in the future, the standard of care in medicine will include preventative measures to reduce the prevalence of periodontal disease and therefore decrease the risk of cancer as well as many other serious diseases.”


Dr. Reiner’s dental practice is located at 3975 20th Street in Vero Beach. The office phone is 772-999-5341.  

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