In America, gum disease is the second most prevalent chronic disease, after tooth decay. About 80% of Americans have some level of gum disease. That’s compared to about 35% of Americans who are obese, though more than 90% of US adults have cavities.
Gum disease is the most common cause of tooth loss, the most common cause of dental implant failure, and it can have serious health impacts beyond your mouth, contributing to heart disease risk, stroke risk, cancer risk, and more. Gum disease is a very complex condition that is difficult to understand, prevent, and treat. But we may soon have another tool in our armamentarium for dealing with the condition, thanks to researchers who have developed a vaccine that may help protect us against some of the consequences of gum disease.
A Keystone Pathogen
When researchers set out to develop a vaccine against gum disease, they decided to focus their efforts on a single bacterium: Porphyromonas gingivalis. Although gum disease is typically caused by groups of many different bacteria, previous research has shown that relatively small populations of P. gingivalis can lead to significant damage.
That’s because the bacterium releases toxins that disregulate the immune system. Essentially, P. gingivalis infection hijacks your immune system so that it damages your bones and gums. As a result, P. gingivalis infection can contribute to receding gums, bone loss, and tooth loss. And when it gets together with other keystone pathogens, the damage can be even worse.
Designing a Gum Disease Vaccine
The key to a vaccine is that it exposes the body to elements of dangerous infection. The immune system learns how to respond when a true infection arises. With viruses, this is done using dead or weakened viruses that allow the immune system to recognize the “shape” of the virus without the risk of infection.
Bacterial vaccines work differently. Typically, we introduce the toxins produced by the vaccine. The body then learns how to develop immunity against the toxins and prevent damage to the body.
Researchers didn’t want to try this for P. gingivalis. They were afraid that the toxin was so poisonous it would trigger inflammation and bone loss. Not the ideal result from a vaccine. So instead, they developed a fake version of the toxin, called a “chimera,” that would teach the body how to fight the toxin, but without the risk.
Man or a Mouse? Not Too Big a Difference for Gum Disease
To test the effectiveness of this gum disease vaccine, they vaccinated mice whose gums had been infected with P. gingivalis. Mice make a good model for this kind of research. Apparently, they have a similar response to gum disease as humans (who knew?)
The mice who had been treated with the vaccine experienced significantly less damage to gums and bones than those that hadn’t been.
To further test the vaccine, researchers infected some mice with P. gingivalis and two other nasty bacteria (Treponema denticola and Tannerella forsythia). These three bacteria often work together to cause the worst cases of gum disease. The vaccine protected these mice as well, showing that it could be effective against complex gum infections.
Until the Vaccine Is Ready
Researchers say that they are going to move forward with development of the vaccine. They may be ready for human trials as early as 2018. However, that means the actual release of the vaccine is many years away, if it even pans out as a useful treatment.
In the meantime, we will continue to combat gum disease as best we can, with both traditional treatments and advanced treatment options such as diode lasers that make for more comfortable treatment of gum disease.