The composition of microorganisms in a person’s mouth could affect more than just their breath and dental health. In fact, researchers have linked certain types of bacteria in the mouth to higher pancreatic cancer risks.
Pancreatic cancer is notoriously deadly because the disease progresses silently and diagnosis happens when the cancer has already spread. It’s estimated that of the 53,000 Americans who will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, almost 79 percent will succumb from the disease.
The human body is inhabited by trillions of bacteria. Specialized collections of these bacteria make up microbiomes in the human body. Mostly famous for their existence in the human gut, these communities of microorganisms have been known to influence health processes like digestion and immune responses.
A team of researchers from NYU Langone’s Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center set out to explore the relationship between pancreatic cancer and oral health. They compared the bacterial contents in mouthwash samples from 732 people for 10 years. During this time, 361 people were diagnosed with the disease, while 371 people served as matched controls.
They found a correlation between pancreatic cancer and the presence of two types of bacteria, Porphyromonas gingivalis and Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans, which commonly cause gum disease and periodontitis (gum inflammation).
Compared to people whose samples didn’t have either of the microorganisms, people who had P. gingivalis had a 59 percent increase, and people who had A. actinomycetemcomitans had a 50 percent increase in overall pancreatic cancer risks.
While gum disease and poor oral health have been linked to pancreatic cancer, this study is the first to implicate two microorganisms in the development of this deadly disease. The work was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.
"Our study offers the first direct evidence that specific changes in the microbial mix in the mouth - the oral microbiome - represent a likely risk factor for pancreatic cancer along with older age, male gender, smoking, African-American race, and a family history of the disease," said Jiyoung Ahn, epidemiologist and Associate Professor at NYU, and senior study author.
The authors say their study has diagnostic potential for pancreatic cancer, which currently has no routine screening procedures in place. "These bacterial changes in the mouth could potentially show us who is most at risk of developing pancreatic cancer,” said Ahn.
It is important to note that good oral health does not preclude pancreatic cancer, but having a healthy mouth is good for your overall wellness. Good oral hygiene practices include daily brushing with fluoride toothpaste, flossing, and regular dental checkups.