Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center have found that newly discovered chemical-sensing cells found in gum tissue can help defend the body against infections.
The cells, found in an animal study, protect the mouth against microbes that can damage the soft tissues of the mouth and destroy the bone tissue that supports the teeth.
The specialized gum cells work in conjunction with bitter taste receptors in the mouth that detect byproducts created by the harmful bacteria. They also send messages to the body to kick start the immune system response to invading illness-causing germs.
The researchers hope that these specialized cells may be used to fight periodontal disease.
Periodontal disease, also known as gum disease, is a widespread and serious health concern. Periodontal disease develops when there is an overgrowth of disease-causing bacteria in the mouth.
'The condition starts as gingivitis, in which the gums become red and inflamed,' said Dr. Sean Endsley of Legends Dental in Waco, Texas.
If left untreated, gingivitis can progress into periodontitis, a serious condition that can leave patients at risk of life-threatening illness.
'Patients living with periodontitis are at risk of their gum infection hitting their bloodstream, causing complications from that situation, including heart attack and death,' Endsley said.
Other risks of periodontal disease include an increased chance of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and even cognitive issues such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
Untreated periodontal disease has also been linked to preterm labor and low birth weights in babies.
'Gum disease is also the most common cause of tooth loss,' said Endsley.
The newly discovered cells, known as solitary chemosensory cells (SCCs), were first identified during a study of the gums of laboratory mice.
The researchers observed how the cells reacted in the presence of irritants and bacteria and how they triggered the release of gustducin, a protein that triggers the immune system to respond.
SCC cells have also been found in the gut, urinary tract and nasal cavities.
When the researchers rendered the SCCs ineffective in the mice, the researchers saw an overgrowth of disease-causing bacteria, the development of periodontitis and a minimized immune system response.
As a result of this animal study, and their unpublished work in humans, the research team wants to take the next step in harnessing how the SCC cells can help keep the human mouth healthy.
Source: Monell Chemical Senses Center. 'Special sensory cells in gums protect against periodontitis.' ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 October 2019.