For example, at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Charles F. Streckfus and his colleagues are working on various ways to compare saliva in healthy and cancer patients. One saliva test he is working on measures levels of HER2/neu protein, which is important in normal cell growth, but is overproduced in aggressive breast cancer cells. These elevated HER2/neu levels can be detected in saliva, and research shows this test can potentially reduce the number of false positives and negatives in breast cancer detection. The test also offers a noninvasive way to see how a treatment regimen is working.
At any given time, the mouth contains millions of microorganisms. Some of them can lead to oral disease, yet usually there are formidable patrol forces keeping them in check, notably antimicrobial peptides. Frank Oppenheim, chairman of the department of periodontology and oral biology at Boston University's School of Graduate Dentistry, is a pioneer in this field. He discovered a group of small proteins or peptides with these intriguing properties called histatins. "Histatins appear to trigger a kind of self- inflicted cell suicide mechanism," Oppenheim explained. The peptides get into the cells and destroy them. He believes histatins could be in the running as second-generation antibiotics, in an attempt to address the current widespread drug-resistance problems.
It is thus little wonder why some biotechnology companies are placing their bets on these kinds of peptides. Boston University licensed its patents to a company in Waltham that has been acquired by Pittsburgh-based Demegen. By tweaking a human-derived salivary histatin, researchers there have developed a drug candidate undergoing clinical trials for the treatment of infections in cystic fibrosis patients and another peptide to treat inflammations and fungal infections of the mouth. A Dutch company, AM-Pharma, a University of Amsterdam spinoff, is doing similar work.