Jim Erpenbach DDS

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Possible Vaccine Against Periodontitis in the Works

Chicken pox? There’s a vaccine for that. Flu? That, too. Even shingles? Yep, shingles. There are many vaccines on the market, and new vaccines being developed to fight off different diseases every year. Currently, a new vaccine is being developed to fight a very common, but yet hard to treat disease. This disease is periodontitis, a serious form of gum disease that can cause bone loss and has severe health consequences for its sufferers. Scientists at the University of Melbourne are currently researching and refining a vaccine against periodontitis, in hopes to eliminate the disease, or at least change the way it is treated.

Periodontitis is usually diagnosed during a dental checkup, when during an examination, it is discovered that pockets have developed along the gum line. The pockets are deeper than 3 millimeters and are the perfect place for bacteria to live and flourish. It can impact the mouth in different ways, and some patient’s see infections in just one quadrant of the mouth, while others experience an infection in their entire mouth. The disease causes swelling, redness, severe bad breath, and bleeding of the gums, which can make eating, drinking and even brushing the teeth painful. If the condition is severe, painful abscesses can develop and put the patient’s health at risk through infection, inflammation, and even malnutrition if the eating becomes too painful. Periodontitis can even impact dental implants and dentures.

Currently, patients with chronic periodontitis face a regimen of oral antibiotic treatments and below the gum line cleanings, also known and scaling or root planning. This procedure is necessary to remove bacteria and tartar build up, along with any food debris that has been trapped below the gum line. Serious cases of periodontitis may require surgery to remove affected gum tissue.

However, these treatments do not eliminate the risk of the infection recurring again. Many times, bacteria will re-establish and open the patient up to further health implications, such as infection, bone, and tooth loss and cardiovascular complications. "Bacteria that cause periodontal infections flourish in dental plaque, so they are tough to totally get rid of after an infection," says Knoxville, Tennessee, dentist James Erpenbach, D.D.S.

Plaque is a sticky film that covers the teeth and often contains millions of bacteria. "Plaque can be brushed away as part of daily hygiene practices and can be removed during dental cleanings, but can harden into tartar over time if not regularly addressed," says Erpenbach. Other causes of dental plaque buildup include smoking and tobacco use, and certain diseases, like diabetes. Women also experience increased risks of gum disease during pregnancy.

Researchers from the University’s Oral Health Center have been developing and refining this vaccine for the last 15 years. One-third of Australian adults are affected by periodontitis, and their conditions range from moderate to severe. Furthermore, over half of Australians over the age of 65 has periodontitis. Rates are similar for American patients, but over 70 percent of American adults over the age of 65 have periodontal disease.

The vaccine is the first of its kind – and as a matter of fact, the first vaccine to address a dental disease. The vaccine, which was tested on patients in Melbourne and Cambridge, Massachusetts, will destroy the damage causing enzymes of the bacterium Porphyromonas gingivalis. This bacterium is the pathogen frequently responsible for periodontal infections. By damaging these enzymes, the body will be able to produce antibodies to disable further the bacterium’s ability to cause destruction.

"A vaccine against periodontitis is an exciting and a breakthrough for dentistry – and patients," says Erpenbach. "The disease impacts the total health of patients – and has even been linked to increased rates of dementia. Vaccinating patients against gum disease can improve the lives and health of many people."

The Australian study was published in the December edition of NPJ Vaccines. The vaccine is still under research and development at the University of Melbourne but may be deployed as soon as 2018.

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