More than you think, according to researchers at the University of Alberta’s School of Dentistry. Inflammation plays a key role in the body’s immune response and it is the focus of some important research going on at the school.

Uncovering the links of inflammation

Researchers are working to uncover the link between periodontal disease and atherosclerosis, a cardiovascular disease characterized by the thickening of artery walls in response to accumulation of fat-loaded white blood cells. The epidemiological connection has been present in the literature for more than 20 years. “If you were to look at people that had severe periodontal disease, they often had bad cardiovascular disease,” says Maria Febbraio, a researcher at the school. “We’re studying how the bacteria interacts with the cell to promote inflammation because it’s this inflammation that can cause oral bone loss and the bad things about the disease.”

Periodontal disease often affects other diseases as well, including diabetes. Patients with both diseases often have a much higher rate of cardiovascular disease than healthy patients. Researchers are studying the link between periodontal disease and the role it plays in causing or worsening other medical conditions. “Prevention, early detection, and proper treatment of periodontal diseases should be a priority not only for saving teeth but also for promoting general health” says Dr. Liran Levin, the Division Head of Periodontology.

When inflammation attacks nerves

Gum disease and atherosclerosis are caused by chronic inflammation, as are many other long term chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and cancer. Researchers at the University of Alberta are working to find the link between inflammation and these chronic diseases as well. “Acute inflammation is good and it relieves the body of infections. But, when it turns into chronic inflammation, it can result in degeneration of many tissues, including gums, heart tissue, joints, and nerves. “When inflammation attacks nerves, it can cause a number of different chronic degenerative diseases in the central nervous system,” says Dr. Patrick Flood. “Researchers here are looking at developing therapeutics targeting inflammation that prohibits the progression of diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.” Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s. Research shows that inflammation is a key player in causing the disease and a prime target for therapeutic relief. Researchers have found that selected anti-inflammatory treatments can relieve symptoms and half the progression of Parkinson’s in animal models, and are working to bring these therapies to clinical treatment patients.

Inflammation and cancer

Conversely, inflammation also plays a critical role in the progression of cancer, but often there is not enough inflammation to destroy the cancer cells. Researchers within the School of Dentistry are working with investigators from the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the Department of Medicine to identify and develop drugs that can enhance inflammation within cancer cells, leading to the destruction of these cancer cells.

These drugs are being screened to enhance certain specific components of inflammation, namely cytotoxic T cells, which normally seek out and destroy cancer cells. In most cancer patients, however, the cancer itself suppresses the activity of these cytotoxic T cells — making them unable to stop the actively growing cancer. Shokrollah Elahi, a researcher at the school, is investigating a new panel of highly promising therapeutics specifically designed to prevent cancer cells from inactivating these cytotoxic T cells, thereby allowing these cells to recognize and kill cancer cells. Discovery of new and more effective therapies that increase inflammatory responses against cancer can benefit not only those with oral cancer, but other types of cancer as well.