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The Secret Role of Saliva

While you might not think of saliva very often, the salivary gland allows us to chew and swallow the foods we consume. It’s just as likely that you don’t think about the pancreas very often either. But the pancreas secretes digestive juices that allow the body to break down the carbohydrates, protein and fat found in the foods we eat. So while these types of secretions rarely come to mind, your downtown Portland dental care provider at City Dental wants you to know just how important they are in numerous activities that keep our bodies functioning throughout the day.

Now a new study recently published in the journal Science Signaling has discovered a previously unknown process that makes these types of secretions possible.

At the root of the new study is calcium, a mineral found in all of the cells of the body and one that acts as a type of gatekeeper: an increase in calcium in our cells opens up “gates” that are needed for the production and secretion of fluids like saliva. When the body’s calcium supplies drop the gates don’t open, a problem that commonly occurs in patients suffering from Sjögren’s syndrome. Patients with Sjögren experience dry mouth due to the body’s inability to create saliva. This results in a difficulty speaking, swallowing and chewing, which severely impacts their quality of life.

Researchers from the Pharmacology and Physiology department at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry have spent the last 15 years studying the role calcium plays in Sjögren and other disorders where calcium and secretions are impacted, such as acute pancreatitis. In this study, researchers were successfully able to answer a question that has eluded scientists for decades: what does it take to open a calcium channel in order to start the secretion process?

Researchers have known that the presence of the protein IP3 is vital to increasing calcium and generating gates in most, if not all cells. However, how IP3 functions is fairly complex. One gate is opened from four identical units in IP3, and researchers did not know how many of the separate units needed to be engaged in order for the gate to work.

With the use of advanced gene editing techniques and molecular engineering, researchers discovered that all four units must become active for calcium to increase in a cell and start the process of fluid secretion. Researchers believe this requirement ensures that the calcium channel only opens under ideal conditions that result in secretions, which avoids harmful events that would occur if the channel could open more easily. (Too much calcium can actually kill cells, so it’s of little surprise that the body keeps strict control of how much it produces.)

The results of the study offer an exciting new look at how the body produces secretions, which could offer new potential for the treatment of conditions that range from dry mouth to pancreatitis.

Researchers hope that through gaining the knowledge of how this mechanism works, they can advance research on the treatment of a variety of diseases, including Sjögren’s. Currently, no effective treatments for Sjögren’s exist for the dry mouth the syndrome causes. Dry mouth increases an individual’s risk of oral infections, cavities and tooth loss.

So while the long-term ramifications of this study will take time for patients to experience at their favorite downtown Portland dental care provider, the results offer a promising future for the treatment of dry mouth and a range of other chronic health conditions.


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