Researchers may have found a way to classify and detect gum disease well before symptoms become severe. Health Reporter Erin Billups filed a report on the potential medical breakthrough.
Sixty five million adults in the U.S. have some form of periodontal or gum disease and they're in one of two camps: chronic, meaning there's a slow progression of the disease, and aggressive, where the infection takes hold more rapidly.
The problem is the signs and symptoms for both degrees of the disease largely overlap.
"So if you want to classify the two different forms of disease according to the criteria that are published, you have a pretty difficult time clinically,” said Dr. Panos Papapanou, Columbia University College of Dental Medicine Periodontics Division Director.
The result is by the time those with aggressive periodontitis are diagnosed, irreversible damage has already occurred.
Inspired by cancer biologists, Dr. Papapanou and his team of researchers at Columbia University's School of Dental Medicine, are working on a way to classify periodontal disease based on the gene expression of the affected gum tissue. They're making progress.
"We found more severe disease in one of the two clusters. We found colonization by specific bacteria that have been associated with more severe forms of disease to be more pronounced,” said Dr. Papapanou.
Of the 120 periodontal patients studied, those with the chronic disease had less of that bacteria that colonizes around the tooth, speeding up tooth decay, leading to tooth loss.
The antibodies in the aggressive patients versus the chronic were also different.
"The ideal would be to try to find a classification system that is founded on biology, founded on pathways that can explain why the infection consumes all of your support let’s say in 10 years while in another individual it takes 70 years to develop to the same level,” Dr. Papapanou said.
More studies are needed to validate the findings. We're still years away from there being a simple test that could be administered at your dentist's office.
"The ultimate goal of this would be to be able to get early markers of disease before you have the development of irreversible damage,” said Dr. Papapanou.
Papapanou's work was published in the Journal of Dental Research and funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.