A Pitt study linked some cancers to dental disease

The health of your teeth may seem unrelated to the health of your body, but recent research from Pitt suggests that the same genes that influence disease in our mouths may be linked to other diseases, including certain types of cancer.

“Cavities can be thought of as something very small — like, 'Oh, it's just a tooth,'” said lead author Mariana Bezamat, an assistant professor at Pitt School of Dental Medicine. “But it's the most common chronic disease in the world. If it turns out to be linked to other systemic health problems, I think it might get more attention.

This work builds on Dr. Bezamat's research, which found that people who carry specific variants of the gene ERN1 are more likely to develop certain types of dental disease. Other research suggests the gene may also be linked to cancer in certain groups.bezamat decision Dig deeper into these associations to find out if a specific type of cancer is to blame.

Bezamat and her colleagues looked at more than 1,400 patients who had previously lost a tooth and sought care at Pitt Dental Health Services, confirming that ERN1 variants are linked to cancer and showing that the link is driven by several specific types cancer.

The team, which included School of Dentistry professor Alexandre Vieira and School of Medicine assistant professor Scott Rothenberger, published their findings In the journal Scientific Reports.

“We found that the cancers responsible for this association were breast cancer and skin cancer,” which was surprising, Bezamat said. “They are not related at all, but are different cancers.”

Patients who carry this gene variant are more than twice as likely to develop skin and breast cancer as those who do not have the gene variant. While it's unclear why variations in the ERN1 gene might be associated with cancer or dental disease, the gene plays an important role in stress pathways in the endoplasmic reticulum, a network of tubes within cells that are important for the transport and folding of proteins. Very important.

Studies in mice have shown that the gene can affect the strength and quality of teeth, but more research is needed before such links can be used to directly help patients. Many factors, including genetic and environmental factors, increase the likelihood of developing cancer. Bezamat explains that this particular gene may not even be responsible for the association shown in the study. The real culprit may be a nearby stretch of DNA, and ERN1 is mentioned only in passing. “Animal studies and additional human genetic studies are needed to really confirm this, and there are a lot of steps that need to be taken to get there,” Bezamat said.

The study itself also has several important limitations. Participants were primarily white residents of the Pittsburgh area, and cancer diagnosis data were based on patient self-report.

Bezamat hopes to solve this problem in the future by linking patients' dental and medical records. In addition to being a more accurate way to assess cancer diagnoses, larger data sets may also reveal associations with other diseases that appear less frequently in the general population. “We don't have the statistical power to find associations with rare cancers,” Bezamat said. “That doesn't mean the association doesn't exist, but we don't have the ability to find it.”

She also plans to study specific changes in tooth structure or oral microbiome in patients diagnosed with cancer to further explain the factors driving the genetic link. With more research, finding connections between dental disease and other common health problems could provide important early warning to patients.

“If there were a clearer link between oral health and systemic health, and even cancer, that could have real consequences,” Bezamat said.

— Monaghan, photo: Getty

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