Genes Are Key to Oral Health & Beyond

International study reveals shared genetic links between dental & metabolic diseases


In Brief:

  • In the largest study of its kind, an international group of researchers analyzed oral health and genetic data collected from over 500,000 participants and identified 47 areas of the genome linked to dental caries (tooth decay).
  • The study also revealed that dental caries and periodontitis (gum disease) share certain genetic signatures with characteristics such as smoking, education, personality traits, and cardiovascular and metabolic measures.
  • The findings suggest that processes contributing to dental health may directly affect overall health at the genetic level.
Many faces
Researchers analyzed oral health and genetic data from more than half a million participants and identified 47 areas of the genome linked to dental caries. | Image from Shutterstock

Caries (tooth decay) and periodontitis (gum disease) are leading causes of disease worldwide, with a global cost of more than $540 billion in 2015. To ease the health and economic burdens and find better treatments for these conditions, scientists need to define their causes. Lifestyle factors such as poor dental hygiene are known to put people at risk for caries and periodontitis, but genes are also thought to play a role. However, few reliable studies exist, since scientists need extremely large numbers of participants to draw conclusions with high confidence.

To fill this gap, an international group of researchers carried out the largest-ever genome-wide association study to look for genes involved in caries and periodontitis. The scientists analyzed oral health and genetic data collected from more than 500,000 participants. This information came from the UK Biobank, a database of health and biological data submitted by volunteer participants in the United Kingdom, and the Gene-Lifestyle Interactions in Dental Endpoints consortium, a collaboration of twelve international clinical studies, four of which received NIDCR support. The results were published online June 24, 2019, in Nature Communications.

The analysis revealed 47 areas of the genome linked to dental caries. Some of those genes were already known to have an association with caries. For example, one gene has several variants that cause defects in tooth number and quality in humans. Another gene influences saliva quality. For some of the identified genes, the connections to oral health are less clear, and future studies could help clarify their relationships. The researchers also found shared genetic links among dental caries and characteristics such as smoking, education, personality traits, and metabolic measures. The results hint that genetic processes that contribute to dental caries may also affect cardiovascular and metabolic health.

“By identifying shared genetic determinants between oral health and general health, our study suggests that dental diseases potentially share a common biology with a wide range of general health characteristics, such as smoking, obesity, cancers, and even personality traits,” says lead author Dmitry Shungin, DDS, MHP, PhD, of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Umeå University in Sweden. “Our work underscores the importance of considering oral health in the context of the whole body in management, treatment, and research on oral health conditions.”

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Shungin D, Haworth S, Divaris K, Agler CS, Kamatani Y, Keun Lee M, Grinde K, Hindy G, Alaraudanjoki V, Pesonen P, Teumer A, Holtfreter B, Sakaue S, Hirata J, Yu YH, Ridker PM, Giulianini F, Chasman DI, Magnusson PKE, Sudo T, Okada Y, Völker U, Kocher T, Anttonen V, Laitala ML, Orho-Melander M, Sofer T, Shaffer JR, Vieira A, Marazita ML, Kubo M, Furuichi Y, North KE, Offenbacher S, Ingelsson E, Franks PW, Timpson NJ, Johansson I. Genome-wide analysis of dental caries and periodontitis combining clinical and self-reported data. Nat Commun. 2019 Jun 24;10(1):2773. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-10630-1. PMID: 31235808.

NIH Support: In addition to NIDCR, support for this study came from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).


Attention Editors:

Reprint this article in your own publication or post to your website. NIDCR News articles are not copyrighted. Please acknowledge NIH's National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research as the source. 

Last Reviewed
August 2019

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