Beyond Bright Smiles

Dentistry researcher studies impact of bad gums on the rest of the body

Is flossing your teeth good for your heart?

It could be, according to Denis Kinane, professor of microbiology and immunology and the University of Louisville's first Delta Dental-endowed professor in the School of Dentistry.

For about 10 years, researchers have known that people with gum disease, or periodontitis, often have high rates of heart disease. The disease also has been linked to other health problems such as adult-onset diabetes.

Kinane, an international authority on the relationship of oral condition and systemic disease, is working to pinpoint how one ailment might be causing or triggering the others, a finding that could have major implications for health care.

About 15 to 20 percent of all Americans suffer from gum disease, with the largest number of cases reported in Kentucky and Virginia.

"What we may eventually see is that high quality dental care may reduce the risk of cardiovascular and other serious diseases," says Kinane, who also is the dental school's associate dean for research and enterprise.

Kinane, hired last year through Kentucky's Research Challenge Trust Fund, or "Bucks for Brains" program, is in the midst of organizing a 4,000-square-foot multidisciplinary center in U of L's dental school. The Center for Oral Health and Systemic Disease will include six wet labs, common equipment labs, tissue culture facilities, offices and a computational biology laboratory.

Photo: Denis Kinane
Denis Kinane

He will lead a team of five researchers in examining the role that inflammation, immunity, genetics and systemic disease markers play in gum disease and overall health.

Donald Demuth, a microbiologist from the University of Pennsylvania conducting National Institutes of Health-funded research in oral infection, joined the team on July 1. Suzanne Sistig, an immunologist with Brigham Women's Hospital in Boston, will come on board later this summer.

Besides cardiovascular disease and diabetes, gum disease has been linked to pre-term low birth weight, a problem that affects thousands of infants each year in Kentucky alone, Kinane says. Studies show that pregnant women with periodontitis are at higher risk of having pre-term babies.

As he and his fellow researchers search for clues that link gum disease with other ailments, Kinane also will keep an eye out for opportunities to work with local businesses in developing new dental technologies and products.

There's a symbiotic relationship between private companies and research, he says.

"Companies often have more resources than government to put toward developing new oral health products and technique -- Colgate Palmolive, Proctor and Gamble and other companies have done this, and they have advanced dental care in the process."

For example, a toothpaste manufacturer and a toy corporation collaborated to develop the battery-powered toothbrush now widely available at groceries and drugstores, he says.

Kinane was hired for his experience in working with researchers on three continents and in working with businesses, says John Williams, dental school dean.

"There's no reason Louisville could not become a mecca for oral health research internationally," Williams says.

Kinane, a native of Scotland, has devoted more than 20 years to studying the field of periodontal disease. He earned academic degrees from Edinburgh University and University of Glasgow, where he also held teaching and research positions for years.

He has taught periodontology courses in France, Germany, Japan, Brazil, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Italy, Israel, New Zealand, Switzerland and Finland and has produced more than 500 published research abstracts from national and international meetings and conferences.

A winner of the Sir Wilfred Fish Research Prize from the British Society of Periodontology in 1987 and the society's Research Prize in 2001, Kinane received the International Animal Alternatives Award from Proctor and Gamble Co. in 1996.

He has served on a wide range of committees including the European Federation for Periodontology and is a former president of the International Association for Dental Research's periodontal research group.

"Right now, we know there are overlapping elements between gum disease and several serious health problems. If we can narrow these down, it will improve the way we can diagnose and treat patients," Kinane says.


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Beyond Bright Smiles

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