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Dent Clin North Am. 1999 Oct;43(4):579-97.

Saliva and dental caries.

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Department of Pharmacology, Creighton, University School of Medicine, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.


A study of saliva and its tooth-protective components reveals at least four important functions of saliva: (1) buffering ability, (2) a cleansing effect, (3) antibacterial action, and (4) maintenance of a saliva supersaturated in calcium phosphate. Several salivary constituents subserve one or more of these functions. Research has yielded important information about organic and inorganic secretory products. It is also clear that saliva as a unique biologic fluid has to be considered in its entirety to account fully for its effects on teeth. Saliva is greater then the sum of its parts. One reason for this is that salivary components display redundancy of function, each often having more than one function. This redundancy, however, does not imply that proteins that share functional roles all contribute to the same degree. For instance, when comparing proteins that inhibit calcium phosphate precipitation, statherin and acidic proline-rich proteins are most potent, whereas histatins, cystatins, and mucins appear to play lesser roles. The complex interaction between proteins is another major factor contributing to saliva's function. In this regard, heterotypic complexes of various proteins have been shown to form on hydroxyapatite. Mucin binding to other salivary proteins, including proline-rich proteins, histatins, cystatins, and statherin, is well documented. The complexes, whether adsorbed to the tooth surface or in saliva, have important implications for bacterial clearance, selective bacterial aggregation on the tooth surface, and control of mineralization and demineralization. Finally, proteolytic activity of saliva generates numerous products whose biologic activities are often different from their parent compounds. Fluoride is another important component of saliva that is discussed separately in other articles in this issue. The ability of saliva to deliver fluoride to the tooth surface constantly makes salivary fluoride an important player in caries protection largely by promoting remineralization and reducing demineralization. Some key properties of salivary components discussed in this article are listed in Table 1. Saliva is well adapted to protection against dental caries. Saliva's buffering capability; the ability of the saliva to wash the tooth surface, to clear bacteria, and to control demineralization and mineralization; saliva's antibacterial activities; and perhaps other mechanisms all contribute to its essential role in the health of teeth. The fact that the protective function of saliva can be overwhelmed by bacterial action indicates the importance of prevention and therapy as in other infectious diseases. The knowledge of functional properties of saliva as well as those of its separate components may permit a better assessment of dental caries susceptibility. Future research is essential to characterize more fully salivary components and their interactions and how these affect the caries process. With such knowledge, the use of modified oral molecules as therapeutic agents may become a reality. Equally intriguing is the prospect of influencing the secretion of salivary components by greater knowledge and control over the secretory processes responsible for the delivery of those components.

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