Oral health vs. overall health – Dr. Floyd Dewhirst explains how the 2 link

Floyd Dewhirst, DDS, of The Forsyth Institute in Cambridge, Mass., is a pioneer in the research and identification of oral microbiome. In a recent Q&A with Becker’s Dental + DSO Review, Dr. Dewhirst elaborates on his research and how oral health and overall health connect.

Question: How has the identification and research of oral microbiome developed over the past 10 years?

Dr. Floyd Dewhirst: The study of the oral microbiome and identification of the major bacteria in our mouths has greatly accelerated in the last 10 years. My research at the Forsyth Institute has helped identify the diversity, genetic capability and pathogenic potential of organisms present in the human oral cavity. I have identified approximately 700 species of bacteria that live in oral cavities, both cultivated and previously uncultivated – all of which are described in the Human Oral Microbiome Database which is hosted at Forsyth.

Scientists in the field are starting to change their focus from which bacteria are in the mouth to what they are doing in there. Part of figuring out what bacteria do requires obtaining their genetic blueprint (genome). We now have genomes for 66 percent of human oral bacteria.

Q: How does the identification of oral microbiome benefit dental professionals?

FD: We are still in the early stages of using the composition of the oral microbiome in diagnosis or plan patient treatment and more clinical studies are needed before we can move from research to application. However, the oral health field is trending towards this commercialization of science and it’s extremely exciting.

We’re close, but scientists need more clinical studies before we can move from research studies to application in your dentist’s office. However, this idea of conducting research with commercialization in mind and creating a pathway for your research is gaining momentum in the oral health field. Forsyth recently committed to this idea when we announced Wenyuan Shi, PhD, as our CEO in September and the approach has really taken off.

In October, a research team led by one of Forsyth’s own, Christopher Johnston, PhD, received a $5.4 million award from the National Institutes of Health to pursue revolutionary research of microbes living in the mouth and within the human body. This research has the potential to accelerate work in diverse fields, including medicine, synthetic biology, agriculture and environmental sciences. This award will spark truly game-changing research and is a testament to Forsyth’s commitment to translational science.

Q: Where do you hope your research in oral microbiome takes you?

FD: I hope to culture all bacteria that comprise the oral microbiome and obtain genome information on each of them. This will lay the foundation for figuring out exactly what each bacteria is doing within the community of bacteria that live in our mouths. For scientists to fully understand bacterial species, they must be able to grow them in their laboratories and do experiments with them. Some bacteria have been nearly impossible to grow in the laboratory, but I’m working hard to figure out why they don’t like to grow outside the mouth. I’m finding they are used to being part of a community and normally get important growth factors from other bacteria. You and I would likely have difficulty surviving if cut off from everything produced by other human beings – we are dependent on food, water, shelter, etc. So just like humans, many of the bacteria in our mouths depend on help from other members of their community to survive.

Q: What comparisons have you found between oral health and overall health?

FD: We all want a beautiful smile with healthy teeth and gums and fresh breath. However, oral health isn’t just cosmetic – it also impacts our overall health. My research at Forsyth seeks to understand oral bacteria and how they interact with us so that I can help develop better ways to keep us healthy, prevent changes that lead to disease and effectively treat diseases when they occur. For example, oral infections such as periodontal disease can have severe implications on diabetes and can contribute to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and infections throughout the body. Yes – oral health is connected to overall health, but we need to start thinking about oral health as overall health. It’s not separate, but part of the holistic picture.

Q: How has technology improved or hindered your research into oral microbiome?

FD: As a research scientist, technology has always improved what I could discover about the oral microbiome. For example, Next Generation Sequencing technologies have greatly increased our ability to find rare organisms in oral microbiome samples and has significantly reduced the cost for each sample in research studies, and the newer sequencing tools provide information on important modification of the DNA which were previously impossible to detect. Technological advances in imaging and big data analysis will also continue to accelerate the pace of knowledge acquisition and move our understanding of the oral microbiome ahead.

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