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Currently, the only thing dentists can do to treat gum disease is prescribe a remedy of increased hygiene and sometimes painful surgery. Researchers at the Harvard Dental School, who are experimenting with a novel drug treatment, hope to change that.
Associate Professor Ray C. Williams and his research group have been studying the drug, flurbiprofen, in an attempt to treat periodontal disease--which causes bone loss around the teeth and inflammation of gum tissue.
"We're investigating the possibility of using aspirin-like drugs to block a biochemical passway which is important in the loss of bone around the teeth," said Williams.
Periodontitis afflicts about 75 percent of adults over age 35, according to a Medical School press release.
According to the press release, the Dental School first explored the effect of the drug on beagles, a breed of dog prone to periodontal disease, and then in 1985 began studying the drug's impact on periodontal disease in humans.
The study showed that flurbiprofen can significantly slow the loss of bone around the teeth in patients with moderate to severe periodontal disease.
"Other investigators in other parts of the world are reporting the same observations that indicate that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can slow the loss of bone," he said.
But Williams--who also chairs Harvard's periodontology department--added that the drug is not ready to be marketed.
"It's not yet clear what the risk-benefit ratio is with the use of this type of drug, which has known side effects, such as the irritation of the stomach and the potential for increased bleeding," he said.
While the use of drug therapy to treat periodontal disease is still in the research stage, Williams said he hopes it will one day be used to supplement conventional methods of treatment.
"It will be important to determine how this type of drug compares with conventional mechanical treatment and how it may advance the dentist's ability to treat the disease," he said.
Dr. Walter Donnenfeld of the periodontology department at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine said yesterday that "the area Dr. Williams is exploring--the use of anti-inflammatory drugs--should be investigated. Whether it is the answer, we don't know yet."
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