The link between gum disease and oral cancer

Researchers have studied the possible links between the bacteria that cause gum disease and the progression of oral cancer 

The team from the University of Plymouth have said that cancer needs blood vessels to grow and spread.

They are aiming to build on evidence that shows how bacteria which cause periodontitis are linked to blood vessel formation.

The project, led by Dr Louise Belfield heads the team from the University’s Institute of Translational and Stratified Medicine (ITSMed).

It is funded by a Colgate Robin Davies Dental Care Professionals award, part of the Oral and Dental Research Trust.

The researchers will grow mini tumours and blood vessels in the laboratory.

They will add bacteria to identify what effect they have on the blood vessels and how they operate.

Blood vessels that supply a tumour grow and work differently to normal blood vessels.

If the research ascertains that bacteria make the blood vessels grow more rapidly and similarly to those associated with tumours and identify the exact process by which they do this, it could form the basis of a new screening programme to treat or detect the cancer risk earlier.

Dr Belfield said: ‘We know that tumours in the mouth, unlike many other tumours, are in constant contact with bacteria.

‘But we don’t know exactly how the bacteria affect tumour and vessel growth yet.

‘Helping the tumour to grow’

The bacteria may not cause the cancer, but they may do something to make the progression of the cancer speed up.

She explained that one way they could do this is via the blood vessels.

This would encourage them to grow more rapidly or in a way which helps the tumour 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.’

She said that cancer cannot grow more than 2mm in diameter without blood vessels.

Existing evidence suggests that bacteria found in gum disease can stimulate blood vessel growth.

She stated that they are hopeful about the results.

‘Bacteria that cause gum disease could gain a portal of entry to the bloodstream – and therefore the rest of the body – via the gum line.

‘So by addressing gum disease in the first instance, it could prevent other inflammatory diseases too.’

Oral cancer underfunded

The work is taking place in the oral microbiome research group in ITSMed, which explores all living organisms in the mouth.

Co-investigator Dr Zoe Brookes, clinical lecturer in undergraduate dental studies at the University of Plymouth, said: ‘Oral cancer is seriously underfunded within the UK – especially as it affects as many people as leukaemia.

‘Treatments for oral cancer haven’t changed or progressed in the same way others have.

‘So it would be a positive step to help tackle prospective cases.

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

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