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A recent study by researchers from MIT and Harvard has taken a taken an interesting look at what we know about cavities (dental decay) and how our body protects against them.

One of the first lines of defense in the body are the mucus layers that cover areas like the nose, mouth, and lungs.  Proteins in this mucus help protect the body from a variety of diseases.

This study looks specifically at the salivary mucin MUC5B.  MUC5B is a protein that is naturally released in the body by areas such as the submandibular and sublingual glands.  You can check out the entire paper here, but I will try to simplify their findings.

First you need to know a little about how cavities form.  Cavities need a variety of factors to be in place before they can grow.  Things like environment, a food source, and the presence of a disease causing bacteria all play a role in the formation of a cavity.  In short, a cavity is formed when specific bacteria have a suitable food source in the ideal oral conditions.

The scientists wanted to look at the connection between a specific protective protein found in the mouth (MUC5B) and a specific cavity-causing bacteria (Streptococcus Mutans).  So, the researchers isolated MUC5B and evaluated how it interacted with S. Mutans.  Here is what they found:

  • MUC5B does NOT change the growth of Mutans
  • MUC5B does decrease the ability for Mutans to attach to the tooth and contribute to cavity formation

 

The scientists found that MUC5B did not act by killing or suppressing the S. Mutans bacteria.  MUC5B acted by inhibiting the bacteria’s ability to attach to the tooth.  Even though the bacteria was present and there was a food source, the environment on the tooth surface was made less habitable for the bacteria, thus decreasing the ability for a cavity to form.

So, what does this mean?  Should you start eating your boogers to increase the amount of MUC5B on your teeth… probably not.  The study’s focus is too narrow to make that type of conclusion.  However there are still a lot of great things we learned from this research.  We learned that MUC5B provides a natural defense against cavities.  This could lead to further research for individuals with decreased levels of MUC5B such as people with dry mouth or genetic mutations that reduce mucus production.  More research could lead to new drugs or even over-the-counter products that may one day help reduce the prevalence of dental decay around the world.  Don’t start picking your nose just yet, but don’t be surprised if you see new drugs in the future that boost our body’s natural defenses to help fight tooth decay.