Saliva is interesting.
Produced and secreted by human salivary glands in the mouth, it is 98 percent water plus electrolytes, mucus, white blood cells, epithelial cells (from which DNA can be extracted), enzymes (such as amylase and lipase), antimicrobial agents such as secretory IgA, and lysozymes.
The enzymes found in saliva are essential in starting the process of digesting starches and fats in food. These enzymes help break down food particles entrapped in crevices, protecting the teeth from bacterial decay.
Saliva wets and lubricates food, making it easier to swallow. And it helps prevent the drying of the oral mucosa, mucous membrane lining the inside of the mouth.
In other animals, saliva has very interesting uses. Some swifts use their gummy saliva to build nests, the basis of delicious bird’s nest soup in Chinese menus.
Some caterpillars produce fiber from proteins stored in modified salivary glands. The fibers become what we treasure as silk.
In this pandemic time, the saliva has a new role.
It will be studied to determine the occupational risks that dental professionals face from COVID-19.
The samples will come from students, faculty and support staff in dentistry and dental hygiene at the University of Manitoba (U of M) and nine other dental schools in Canada.
They will be part of a national study on COVID-19 to investigate infection rates, transmission risks and immune system responses of those working in dental clinics, laboratories and offices in the universities.
The 10 universities taking part are located in nine cities across seven provinces: Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.
Findings of the research will be used to make working conditions safer in dental clinics.
Led by McGill University’s faculty of dentistry, the study hopes to recruit 800 volunteers to submit monthly samples of their saliva for analysis and complete a monthly online questionnaire.
“Saliva is ideal for detecting active COVID-19 infections because it is easy to collect and transport,” said Dr. Paul Allison of McGill University’s Faculty of Dentistry.
“However, there remains a lot to be learned about how it can be used to detect an immune response in patients following infection or vaccination. Our study will provide useful information about the nature of immunity.”
Dr. Bob Schroth is aiming to get 80 — 40 staff, 40 students — for the U of M portion of the study.
Dr. Bob Schroth, a Professor of Preventive Dental Science at the U of M’s Dr. Gerald Niznick College of Dentistry, heads the Manitoba portion of the study. He is still awaiting approval from the university’s ethics board to go ahead with the research.
Examining how the virus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted in these settings will “help paint a picture about the level of risk for front-line oral health care workers in different clinical situations,” said Dr. Schroth.
University clinics, where students work directly with patients, have strict infection-control measures. The research from the study will help make them even safer, he said.
Dental and dental hygiene students and staff remain among the few groups on-site almost daily at universities and colleges across Canada.
While portions of their studies have gone virtual, “not everything that they will learn can be done online,” Dr. Schroth said.
“They actually need to come in and learn skills within the lab, those hands-on skills. And they also need to provide clinical care to patients.”
Their continued presence on campus, and the nature of the dental work itself, increases their risk of exposure to the coronavirus, according to Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force which is funding the study with 1.4 million Canadian dollars.
“You’re sometimes working and the person’s head is almost literally in your lap,” Dr. Schroth said.
“From what we can see, this pandemic is not ending anytime soon,” he said. The study will run until the end of 2021.
Dr. Joseph D. Lim is the former Associate Dean of the UE College of Dentistry, former Dean of the College of Dentistry, National University, past president and honorary fellow of the Asian Oral Implant Academy, and honorary fellow of the Japan College of Oral Implantologists. Honorary Life Member of Thai Association of Dental Implantology. For questions on dental health, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or text 0917-8591515./WDJ