The least favorite thing for most people is a visit to the dentist. Whether it is a simple checkup or an important procedure, there is an apprehension to going through with it. Needless to say, most of us in developed countries do end up going to our dentists because it is an important and crucial part of our physical health. A beautiful smile can mean a lot in a social setting.
A healthy set of teeth and gums prevents discomfort, bad breath, and disease. Removal of our wisdom teeth, when necessary, protects us from the undue pain of teeth impacting other teeth.
In developing countries or unstable countries, dental health is usually not a prime focus for people, either by choice or, in most cases, because they do not have that option. Their main concern is the continued welfare of themselves and their family. In some cases, they may not have access to a dentist because of distance, money, or there is simply no dentist around.
There are many solutions to oral health concerns, like fluoride in water systems and oral health education. While those are useful in developed countries, they may not be effective in developing countries. Also, these solutions require continued use and administration so an easier method would be required. An example of this is tooth decay, which fluoride helps prevent because there is always a risk of getting cavities and that risk is even worse in developing countries. Solutions are usually temporary and not always accessible. Recently, scientists in China are developing a vaccine for dental cavities that would get rid of it permanently.
What Are Dental Cavities?
Dental cavities are simply holes, or damages, in our teeth. It is a very common ailment, second only to the common cold. It is caused by acid released from plaque build up in our teeth over time. Since bacteria are a normal part of our mouths, they break down foods, especially starch and sugar, into acids. Plaque is the accumulation of bacteria, food, acids, and our own saliva, which also breaks food down, along our teeth and gums.
Plaque accumulation leads to dental cavities because of the acid erosion of the protective layers of our teeth. They start off painless and easily treatable, but if they are left untreated then they become painful and may result in tooth loss as they erode teeth down to the nerves. The plaque buildup also leads to gingivitis and periodontitis.
The Vaccine Research
Researchers, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIOV) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, are currently working on a vaccine to treat tooth decay. They initially started working on a protective cure that involved a fusion protein. It involved using a highly specific protein from Streptococcus mutans, called rPAc, and fusing it with an E.coli-derived flagellin, tail, protein called KF. This fusion protein was effective at conferring high levels of immunity in rats against S. mutans and reduced the frequency of dental cavities by 64% in those rats that did not have cavities and 53.9% in those rats with cavities. Despite the effectiveness of this fusion protein, it contained side effects that overshadowed its effectiveness. One of the major side effects that were found were inflammation injuries because of the flagellin part of the protein.
Knowing the problem areas they needed to address, the researchers began working on a second generation fusion protein. They modified the flagellin part of the fusion protein, eliminating the aspects of it that were triggering the inflammation injuries. This new fusion protein was dubbed KFD2-rPAc. The second generation fusion protein had similar effectiveness as the first generation one, KF-rPAc, and did not have the side effects of it. This makes the new fusion protein an ideal vaccine candidate against cavities.
Hurdles and the Future
The next step for the researchers would be to eventually move into clinical trials with humans. This step would allow for discovery of the fusion proteins direct effects on human oral health and ensure that the vaccine remains effective and limited in its harm. If this vaccine is approved by the FDA, and other international equivalents, then it offers a great boon to everyone. It would help to mitigate a lot of the cost and time that are used in treating oral health problems associated with dental cavities. It would be helpful for people in rural communities or poor communities that do not have adequate access to dentists or health professionals. It would also be an effective addition to people in developing countries as the overall cost should be lower than current options.
As Angela Pack, from the University of Otago New Zealand, puts it: Population in developing countries is far too prone to oral diseases, especially periodontal disease. These diseases are made worse by the conditions that many developing countries face, like poverty, poor living conditions, inadequate education, and lack of funds and government support. Some of these problems also persist in developed countries where the disparity, in both resource access and wealth distribution, are growing.
It becomes extremely important to treat persisting conditions, like dental cavities, with permanent solutions because the burden of dealing with those disorders is great and puts a strain on the systems that try to solve them, like the World Health Organization. If developing countries are faced with fewer health problems, they need less monetary support from other countries; they are able to grow and develop their own infrastructure in health, economics, and social areas; they become more self-sufficient and can then contribute to global research in areas of health, science, and technology to further advance humanity’s knowledge of all things.
On a final reminder: this potential vaccine is only one part of a bigger picture. While it can help prevent cavities in many, it does not treat all oral health issues. Combining the vaccine with oral care, like brushing your teeth and rinsing with mouthwash, further improves our overall oral health to a point that is better than no oral care or the vaccine alone.
The map above partly contradicts the text of the article. In most developing countries for which there are data, the color indicates a “low” or “very low” incidence of decayed, missing, or filled teeth. Conversely, tooth decay appears on the map to be a disease of rich countries. Quality of available stats probably varies greatly, but it’s clearly more complicated than the claim that poverty exacerbates periodontal disease. Diet and lifestyle regardless of income probably matter a lot, too.