A bacterium commonly found in gum disease might add a new charge to its rap sheet. Already implicated in a wide range of systemic diseases, Fusobacterium nucleatum, has now been shown to hamper the body’s response to tumor cells. By suppressing the immune system, this bacterium may allow cancer to take hold, creating a beneficial environment for itself.
We know that many bacteria associated with gum disease can spread throughout the body. They can travel to the heart, the lungs, and elsewhere. Sometimes, we’re not sure that they are harmful, but other times they definitely seem to play a contributing role in disease.
When researchers found that the bacterium was found in great numbers in colorectal tumors, researchers wanted to find out whether this was a benign association or if the bacteria were really contributing to the development of tumors.
To explore this question, they cultivated F. nucleatum in the same environment with different types of human tumor cells and killer cells that were supposed to destroy the tumors. They found that a protein produced by the bacteria activated a receptor site on human killer cells, telling them not to kill cancer.
This may sound like gum disease are part of a huge conspiracy to try to kill you. Add the implication gum disease is associated with hardening of the arteries, and it begins to seem like the sneaky bacterium is really out to get you. But the truth is that no bacteria are really “thinking” of you at all.
F. nucleatum is an anaerobic bacterium–the kind that hates oxygen and contributes to bad breath–and it’s just looking for ways to create this kind of environment so it can thrive. Tumors create the perfect environment for F. nucleatum to thrive, so fostering their growth helps the bacterium out. They don’t know about the potential larger impact that the cancer might have.
It’s similar to the way that people might modify our environment with something like agriculture to make the environment more supporting, not realizing that environmental damage might eventually make living impossible.
It’s way too early to make any connection between gum disease, levels of F. nucleatum, and actual cancer rates. But we do know that gum disease treatment sure seems to have an impact on other related conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and pregnancy complications.
If this bacterium does help cancer take hold, it sure can’t hurt to have less of it in your body.
If you would like to learn more about the impact of gum disease on whole body health, please call for an appointment with a Beverly Hills periodontist today.