Gum disease is one of the most common chronic diseases. It’s not only damaging to the teeth, but it plays a keystone role in many serious health conditions, including heart disease, pneumonia, diabetes, and, potentially, several types of cancer.
But now researchers are claiming that they have developed a vaccine that will help protect us from the damages of gum disease. Will this mean an end to the disease? No, but it may help protect against receding gums and bone loss related to periodontitis.
Sometimes the Immune System Is the Enemy
One important thing to understand about gum disease is that not all the damage is caused by bacteria. In fact, much of the damage–possibly the most important damage–is caused by the immune system.
When your body detects some of the toxins given off by oral bacteria, it responds definitively to destroy the bacteria and prevent the spread of infection. The problem is that this response is also very destructive to your body, especially your gums and your bones. The result is receding gums, loose teeth, and, eventually, tooth loss.
The worst part is that the immune system response is actually not very effective at eliminating or controlling the infection. In fact, the bacteria have essentially hijacked the immune system to make the environment more hospitable for them.
Vaccines Prepare Your Immune System
Vaccines work by “priming” your immune system so that it has a high state of readiness before encountering dangerous pathogens. With viruses, we typically inject dead or sterile viruses so that the body can learn how to counter them.
With bacteria, we use a different approach. Instead of introducing inactivated or weakened bacteria, we introduce the body to the toxins created by bacteria. This helps the body develop antibodies to fight the toxins and prevent damage to the body.
One obstacle to creating a gum disease vaccine is that the condition is perpetrated by a host of bacteria that all work together to create a cocktail of damaging toxins in the body. Researchers have overcome this by targeting what are known as “keystone” pathogens. These pathogens are responsible for an impact far larger than their population. For this vaccine, researchers identified Porphyromonas gingivalis. P. gingivalis has the ability to create immune system dysfunction with relatively small populations.
To control the damage caused by P. gingivalis, researcher created a chimera, or imitation toxin. This toxin would be identified by the body, which would prepare itself for fighting the bacteria.
Preliminary research suggests that this approach is effective. In mouse models (which, researchers explain, are actually similar to humans in terms of gum disease), injection with the vaccine was able to significantly control the loss of bone.
There was no word about whether the vaccine prevented receding gums related to periodontitis. But researchers announced that clinical trials for the vaccine could be coming as soon as 2018.
If Your Gums Have Already Been Damaged
Although the potential for this gum disease vaccine is great, it won’t help people who have already experienced receding gums. But we can help.