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December 2008 Issue
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Opening up on dental research


One area of science can change a lot in 40 years. Importantly, as the developments in science build on each other, they have the potential to make a huge impact on our daily lives.

Associate Professor Tony Rogers has been a researcher in dental health for almost 40 years - for most of it, with the University of Adelaide's Dental School. In that time he's seen some major developments in science that have helped to shape our thinking about dental health.

Dr Rogers, who is an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow with the Dental School, has edited a new book, Molecular Oral Microbiology, which encompasses the major developments in the field.

Microbiology has had a significant impact on dental health research and public health in general, Dr Rogers said.

"When I started out in the late 1960s, it was just becoming apparent that an organism called Streptococcus mutans appeared to be responsible for dental caries [tooth decay]. The idea that an organism, or a series of organisms, was causing dental decay had originally been floated early in the 20th Century but it had not been pursued and there really hadn't been a concerted effort to find out what - at a microbiology level - was really causing dental caries," he said.

"As part of this field of research, my colleagues and I started to work on streptococci in general, particularly concentrating on Streptococcus mutans in dental plaque. Among other things, we developed a method for 'fingerprinting' those strains, because Streptococcus mutans is actually a group of different organisms.

"Using the fingerprinting technique, we managed to show that, in a family group, the mother is usually the person who transmits the organism from herself to a child. So in a sense, what we were able to show was that dental decay was an infectious, transmissible disease. It was an interesting finding."

Such research has the ability to impact on a large number of people's lives.

"In Sweden, in particular, an early intervention approach has been implemented to educate women who attend ante-natal clinics. In such clinics, the mothers-to-be are assessed in relation to their salivary levels of Streptococcus mutans. Those having high levels are given appropriate treatment to reduce such levels and are given instruction in how to maintain good oral hygiene. The end result has been that transmission of Streptococcus mutans to their offspring is thereby delayed or prevented, as is the development of dental caries. It's the old adage: prevention is better than the cure, and a lot less costly," Dr Rogers said.

There have been many important developments in dental microbiology at the molecular level, greatly enhancing researchers' understanding of means by which dental health can be maintained. Breakthroughs include the realisation that bacteria exist in nature as "biofilms" (a "micro-ecology" of bacteria, both good and bad), the unravelling of complete genomes of a number of bacteria, and developments in proteomics (understanding the role and function of proteins in promoting or preventing disease).

Molecular Oral Microbiology is published by Caister Academic Press and has been well received in research laboratories around the world. As a textbook, it should aid in the training of dental health researchers and others with interests in microbiology generally.

"It will be especially useful for teaching at postgraduate level, and also some undergraduate teaching," said Dr Rogers, who has donated a copy of his book to the University of Adelaide's Barr Smith Library.

For more information about the book, visit the publisher's website.

Story by David Ellis

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Associate Professor Tony Rogers
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