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Ask the Dentist: Oral bacteria linked to pancreatic cancer

Bacteria in the mouth could be an indicator for who gets pancreatic cancer, writes dentist Lucy Stock of Gentle Dental Care in Belfast

Pancreatic cancer is the 10th most common cancer in the UK
Lucy Stock

RECENT research from the United States suggests that measuring bacteria in the mouth could potentially show us who is most at risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The study found that people with high levels of two certain gum-disease bacteria where twice as likely to develop pancreatic cancer, which is the 10th most common cancer in the UK.

The pancreas is a large gland situated deep in the the abdomen, between the stomach and the spine. It's an important structure because pancreatic juices help to break down food so that the body can absorb it. It also produces a number of hormones that enter the body and flow around the bloodstream, such as insulin which helps to regulate the amount of sugar in the blood.

It's not a new idea that gum disease and poor oral health have been linked to raised risk of pancreatic cancer; however, this is the first study to directly evaluate a link between specific bacteria and pancreatic cancer.

"Our study offers the first direct evidence that specific changes in the microbial mix in the mouth – the oral microbiome – represent a likely risk factor for pancreatic cancer along with older age, male gender, smoking, African-American race, and a family history of the disease,” senior author of the study Professor Jiyoung Ahn said.

The researchers suggest the finding may lead to earlier, more precise treatments for pancreatic cancer, which is extremely welcome as currently only 8 per cent of people survive more than five years with this difficult-to-diagnose cancer.

When they analysed the results, Prof Ahn found that participants whose mouth bacteria contained either of two certain types had a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer, compared with participants whose oral microbiome didn't contain those bacteria. Both of the bacteria are found in people who suffer from bone-eroding gum disease. Typically people with gum disease notice bleeding gums and eventually the teeth become loose.

Prof Ahn suggests: “These bacterial changes in the mouth could potentially show us who is most at risk of developing pancreatic cancer.”

With so many studies indicating that gum disease can have knock-on effects on our overall health, it has never been more important to stay on top of your gum health. Your dentist can let you know how healthy your gums are and suggest any necessary treatments.

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