Researchers have found that isolating a particular gene within the oral microbiome can reveal a huge amount of useful diagnostic information about a person’s health
Samples that are sent to medical labs and pathology laboratories are more often blood or tissue. However, that could be changing, thanks in part to the work being done at the Oral Microbiome and Metagenomics Research Lab (OMMR) at the University of Toronto.
Plaque and the Oral Microbiome as Biomarkers for Medical Lab Tests
The OMMR researchers discovered that isolating a particular gene within the oral microbiome can reveal a huge amount of information about a person’s health. The gene is 16S ribosomal RNA (16S rRNA). It is a bit like a fingerprint in that it is both present and unique in all bacteria, including the bacteria in dental plaque. The 16S rRNA serves as a reference point in a plaque sample, and helps researchers identify all of the bacteria in a given sample.
By comparing dental plaque samples from the mouths of healthy people to those from people with specific diseases, researchers can begin to map biomarkers that could provide information about health risks.
Why a Plaque Bank Could Contribute to New Clinical Lab Assays
An article published in Medical Design Technology (MDT) describes the work as “creating a comprehensive catalogue of health through the kind and number of bacteria in the human oral microbiome.” More simply put, it could be described as a plaque bank.
In the MDT article, David Lam, MD, DDS, PhD, of the University of Toronto says, “We’re providing a bacterial surveillance service to patients.” He goes on to explain that the team at OMMR wants to eventually “monitor disease progression and response to therapies” through dental plaque analysis.
One reason for the research into using dental plaque as a method for collecting samples for analysis, and possibly diagnosis of various diseases, is that it is such a dynamic microbial community. Sometimes referred to as biofilm, an article on the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research website describes dental plaque as “a dynamic, polymicrobial community, that, like lichens growing along a craggy coast, colonizes various and sundry pits, fissures, and other oral surfaces.”
Previous Work on Disease Identification Using the Oral Microbiome
The work at OMMR is innovative because it focuses on diseases that are not generally associated with dental plaque. Before the leap to other types of diagnostics could be taken, other scientists studied the oral microbiome in relation to periodontitis. In a landmark paper published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NSBI) website, Jorge Frias-Lopez, PhD, a scientist/researcher at the Forsyth Institute, and several colleagues reported “the in situ genome-wide transcriptome of the subgingival microbiome in six periodontally healthy individuals and seven individuals with periodontitis.” Such studies led by researchers providing the composition of the oral microbiome have, in turn, led to the knowledge that dental plaque holds information about the rest of the body’s function.
The Problem with Saliva as a Specimen for Diagnostic Purposes
Saliva has been used for diagnostic purposes for quite some time. In a 2011 article published on the NCBI website, Daniel Malamud, PhD, wrote “Salivary diagnostics is a dynamic and emerging field utilizing nanotechnology and molecular diagnostics to aid in the diagnosis of oral and system diseases.” However, the problem with using saliva is that “bacterial numbers in saliva can ebb and flow over the course of a day, fluctuating based on everything from what you ate for breakfast to your sleep cycles,” according to the MDT article. The microbial communities in dental plaque, on the other hand, remain stable, making it possibly a more reliable source of information.
Conflicting Results from this New Field of Diagnostics
This branch of study is new, and, so far, there are some conflicting results. A good example is the research regarding helicobacter pylori in dental plaque and gastric infection.
A study published on the NCBI website conducted in 2006 concluded, “There is not any significant association between the helicobacter pylori of the dental plaque and the stomach. Also the dental plaque cannot be used as a primary diagnostic aid for gastric infection.” However, a more recent study published in 2014 found, “There is a close relation between H. pylori infection in the oral cavity and the stomach. The mouth is the first extra-gastric reservoir.”
Future Research Plans
One of the ways researchers at OMMR plan to pursue future studies is “to create an artificial mouth that mimics the physical and physiological conditions of the human oral cavity to help them carry out their biomarker identification process.” Future research will also investigate so-called “plaque transplantation” therapies, such as placing select plaque samples into the mouths of patients who have undergone radiation therapy, which sometimes causes rapid tooth decay. The procedure could “stabilize the bacterial content of the mouth.”
Harvesting dental plaque is non-invasive, and a complete analysis can be completed in just a few hours. As this line of research continues, and the scientists at OMMR compile the plaque bank, biofilm samples could become powerful diagnostic tools. If this were to happen and further studies validate the use of plaque as a biomarker, then the day might come when clinical laboratories will provide lab testing services to dentists.