Harvard Men's Health Watch

Gum disease may signal warning for pancreatic cancer

In the Journals

Still another reason to see your dentist about possible gum disease: the check-up may protect you from pancreatic cancer. Research reported in the June 28, 2016, Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with high levels of a specific oral bacterium are more likely to get this type of cancer, which strikes more than 50,000 people annually.

Researchers compared saliva samples from 361 people who later developed pancreatic cancer with 371 samples from healthy subjects. They found that those with high levels of Porphyromonas gingivalis had a 59% greater risk of developing pancreatic cancer. P. gingivalis is one of the most common harmful oral bacteria and is strongly linked to periodontitis—a gum infection that damages the soft tissue and bone that supports teeth.

This study builds on previous research that has associated gum disease with pancreatic cancer. Yet these findings are the first to show that significant oral bacteria levels can precede pancreatic cancer instead of developing after the cancer has appeared.

Not much is known about what causes pancreatic cancer, and it is too early to say whether this specific bacterium directly contributes to the disease. However, lead researcher Dr. Jiyoung Ahn of New York University says one theory is that since inflammation is related to cancer, the bacteria could cause inflammation in the pancreas. Another possibility is the bacteria are simply a marker for cancer-causing inflammation.