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Life

Silk being used to help repair salivary glands

Dentist Lucy Stock of Gentle Dental Care in Belfast says an ingenious technique could solve problems associated with lack of saliva

Silk cocoons with a silk worm – silk could be the key to fully functioning salivary glands
Lucy Stock

MOST of us have suffered from a temporary dry mouth at one time or another, whether from being in a stressful situation or from too many vinos. Even for a few hours it's uncomfortable to have a dry mouth. However, for many people the feeling is permanent.

In such cases a dry mouth, otherwise known as xerostomia, can be due to a number of reasons – for example, diabetes, the side effects from medicines or the changes in salivary glands as we age. It doesn't help that as people get older they tend to take more medicines; nearly half of over-65s are taking more than five medicines at any one time.

Having a dry mouth has a much bigger impact on the body than just giving an annoying feeling. Saliva plays a massive protective role in the health of teeth and the soft tissues of the mouth. So people with not enough saliva often experience rapid, rampant tooth decay. Unfortunately its common that the decay starts in hard-to-reach places, making the affected teeth even more difficult for dentists to rebuild.

A dry mouth sufferer also has to endure difficulty in eating and speaking and there’s a tendency to wake up more often at night. The current salivary replacements tend to be short acting and there are no treatments that can fix salivary glands.

Now, however, relief is in sight, as a new study shows how, with the help of silk fibres, it may be possible to generate new salivary glands out of stem cells.

A team from the University of Texas carried out a study where they used silk fibres to provide salivary gland stem cells with a 3D scaffold on which to grow a matrix of salivary-gland stem cells. The achievement is exciting because salivary-gland stem cells are some of the most difficult cells to grow in the lab and retain their function.

The findings bring promise to thousands in Britain and Northern Ireland with an autoimmune disease called Sjögren's syndrome – a condition where the body attacks its own tear ducts and salivary glands.

Within the next 10 years the Texan team hope to use stem cells harvested from human bone marrow or umbilical cord blood to regenerate human salivary glands so that they can be used to replace any damaged glands.

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