Health article

Sjögren’s research explores genetic link to dry mouth, other saliva issues

Blake Warner, D.D.S., Ph.D., M.P.H., studies disorders that affect our salivary glands, including Sjögren’s syndrome. Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease, which means that it causes your immune system to attack healthy cells in your body by mistake.

The condition can damage glands that make saliva, or spit. It can also cause dry mouth, loss of taste, swollen glands, and more.  

Dr. Warner works at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), where he helps oversee research on Sjögren’s syndrome. He and his research team at NIDCR want to better understand what causes this disease so they can improve the quality of life of people who have it.

Why did you decide to study Sjögren’s syndrome?

During my residency, I worked in a clinic with patients with Sjögren’s syndrome and other complications. Despite helping patients understand their condition, I felt compelled to find ways to better treat or prevent this condition. By pursuing clinical research, I could play a more active role in improving the lives of people with Sjögren’s syndrome.

What led to your current research on the topic?

“Living with Sjögren’s syndrome can be easier if you maintain good health habits.”

– Blake Warner, D.D.S., Ph.D., M.P.H.

Years of development and testing of therapies have led to few successes in the management of the main symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome. These setbacks may be due in part to the variability of Sjögren’s syndrome.

At NIDCR, we have a more than 35-year history of Sjögren’s syndrome research in patients. Studying patients both at baseline and over long periods of follow-up can help us better understand distinct groups of patients with the disease and understand the underlying cause of the disease, with the goal of discovering better treatments.

Could you talk about the research you’re conducting?

Our research team strives to discern factors which may be influencing the salivary inflammation seen in Sjögren’s syndrome. To do this, there are two main projects that I am very excited about. First, we are working to see if we can turn off specific types of inflammation that damage salivary glands in Sjögren’s syndrome patients. Second, we’re working to identify how salivary damage in Sjögren’s syndrome may be passed on through genetics.

It’s clear that there can be overlap among Sjögren’s syndrome, some autoimmune diseases, and other conditions that cause issues in the salivary glands.

What do you wish more people knew?

A diagnosis can take time. It’s not easily diagnosed because it affects people differently. At least one-third of patients don’t have the classic blood markers for Sjögren’s syndrome. Don’t be afraid to speak up and inform your medical providers of your symptoms.

Also, living with Sjögren’s syndrome can be easier if you maintain good health habits. These include eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water, and having a consistent exercise routine. Manage your symptoms by regularly visiting your primary care providers, dentists, and ophthalmologists [doctors who focus on eye health]. Support groups and foundations focused on Sjögren’s syndrome and other autoimmune diseases can provide additional information and social networks to help people cope with symptoms.

Where do you see research on Sjögren’s syndrome going in the future?

I think we will recognize early symptoms prior to the development of dry eyes and dry mouth. The identification of risk factors may help people better understand the disease course, the development of autoimmunity, and the development of drugs that may prevent damage to target organs such as the salivary glands.

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