A study published this week in Cell Host and Microbe from a research team out of China and the US has shown that in children, telltale oral microorganisms can be prognosticators for progression of dental caries, or cavities.

Image/ National Cancer Institute
Image/ National Cancer Institute

Dental caries are the most common form of oral infection in children.  Once established, the infection is irreversible and leads to tooth decay as the child grows older.  The establishment of the infection also alters the oral microbiome as the child ages, and has been linked to other oral afflictions such as halitosis and thrush.

This study followed 50 4-year-olds for 2 years, testing plaque and saliva every six months.  The children attended the same school, had similar oral hygiene habits, and ate somewhat similar meals; pre-study diagnosis groups were ‘extensive caries’ (>6 affected teeth), ‘minimal caries’ (1-6 affected teeth), or ‘no caries’ (healthy; no affected teeth).  Children with caries at the start of the study had a decrease in “age” of the oral microbiome, meaning the natural progression of the microbiome that accompanies increasing calendar age was stunted at a rate commensurate with the number of caries.  By comparing the samples of the oral microbiome of children already with caries to those unaffected at the start of the study, the researchers were able to diagnose patients with dental caries with 70% accuracy, and determine the likelihood of a child eventually getting caries with 81% accuracy.  These rates were significantly higher than what was estimated by a licensed dentist during a routine clinical visit.

Often, the overgrowth of pathogenic organisms is met with a decrease in microbial abundance.  This occurs in many gut related diseases, and is the same for the oral cavity (this study showed ~50% greater microbial diversity in healthy children vs those at risk/afflicted by caries).  Interestingly, the predictive power of the oral microbiome was significant and could lead to a standard in-house assay for dental offices to combat the microbial changes over time.  As has been stated in previous reports on the link between the oral microbiome and disease progression though, the researchers caution that their model may not fully extend to populations as a whole, since there are vast differences in oral health and hygiene, and eating habits throughout the US and the world.

Edward Marks is a PhD student at the University of Delaware.  His research involves the healing of myocardial tissue after major cardiac events using nanomedicine techniques, with the goal of pushing any advancement directly into the clinic.  Edward received his BS from Rutgers University and Masters from the University of Delaware.