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Needle or cotton swab?

Why should we be excited about new diagnostic uses for saliva?

Spit may be the future hero of medical investigation. By using saliva as a diagnostic, we are exceeding the expectations of early diagnosis of disease. Saliva diagnostic becomes a health surveillance tool, which can allow us to continually monitor the health of an individual. The goal is to keep healthy people healthy.

How is gum disease related to more serious systemic disorders?

The human body is a truly integrated system. The bacteria that trigger periodontal disease have qualities that may promote bleeding. The bacteria are able to enter the blood stream, and cause other conditions like heart disease to escalate. They also trigger release of hormone-like substances that make diabetes worse. You can actually improve a patient’s diabetes by treating his or her gum disease.

We’ve also found the DNA of oral bacteria in such disparate locations as the plaques that cause hardening of the arteries and the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Understanding the meaning of these observations is crucial to understanding human health. Oral diagnostic systems could hold the key to detect changes before they accelerate the course of disease.

If you had a magic funding wand, what would you use it for?

Seed money. The really exciting ideas are the risky ones – and grant-giving agencies are often constrained from investing in untested innovation. The most gratifying part of my work is discovery – and the most amazing thing is that the greatest discoveries often occur by accident. But these accidents don’t happen unless there are funds that allow us to take the next step.

Can you give an example of an important yet accidental discovery?

Our discovery that periodontal disease is episodic in nature came about when we were measuring how fast sites break down in the mouth. We set up a computer program to analyze the breakdown. The cyclic patterns that emerged led to a new understanding of periodontal disease. A second example was our investigation of blue light and how it whitens teeth, which led to the surprising discovery that it also eliminates disease-causing bacteria.

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