Could we diagnose disease from saliva?

22nd January 2020 – Paz Garcia

Doctors could in the future diagnose your condition and predict if you will respond well to treatments – from your spit.

The team, led by researchers from the Department of Twin Research, King’s College London, found 14 molecules in saliva were linked with 11 genes. This includes a gene that can make people develop severe side effects to a common chemotherapy treatment for cancer when the gene’s activity is low.

The study is the first to find that molecules in saliva reflect the activity of certain genes.

First author Dr Abhishek Nag explained:

“Saliva is easy and cheap to collect, without the need for any invasive procedures or specialist healthcare professionals. It may be that in the future, doctors could use simple spit tests to diagnose patients and check how well they may respond to particular treatments.”

Spitting pretty

Saliva is a good reflection of oral health, which in turn is linked with other conditions including heart disease and autoimmune conditions. There has been growing interest from researchers in using saliva, rather than blood, to understand the development of diseases.

The team analysed molecules in the saliva of 1,419 twins from TwinsUK, and looked to see if there was a link with any of their genes. The researchers checked their findings by carrying out the same analysis with participants from a German study called SHIP-2.

The team found 11 genes regulated the levels of 14 molecules in spit, including genes previously unknown to have any connection with saliva.

Senior author Dr Claire Steves explained the next steps for the research:

“Our study has provided us with an initial map of the genes that affect molecules in saliva. We now need larger studies to understand how other genes may lead to changes in saliva and how this is linked with different health conditions.”


Genome-wide scan identifies novel genetic loci regulating salivary metabolite levels (2020) Nag et al. Human Molecular Genetics.

TwinsUK researcher featured in science fiction book

12th April 2019 – by Paz Garcia

Front cover of Biohacked and Begging

How could a future healthcare system based on personalised medicine affect different people?

This is the question posed by Stephen Oram in Zygosity Saves the Day, a short story featured in Biohacked & Begging, published today.

Stephen Oram is a science fiction writer who creates short stories set in the near-future that explore where science and technology may be taking us – for better or for worse.

Zygosity Saves the Day explores a future world where people are offered full health assessments and a personalised medical plan to keep them in good health as they age. Those who take up the offer and adhere to their tailored medical plan are able to access good healthcare facilities, but those who do not end up in a cold state healthcare system run by robots.

“I’m quite interested in the idea that maybe in the future, the human contact will be thing that is expensive, and all the machines and automation will be the things that are cheap,” said Oram.

Dr Claire Steves is Deputy Director of TwinsUK and a consultant geriatrician, and studies ageing and frailty in twins in order to understand why some people become frailer sooner than others. For this project, Oram spent a day with Dr Steves discussing her research and visiting the clinical research ward where he was impressed by a pair of twins who were in for their regular TwinsUK health check visit:

“What really stood out on the morning I spent here was the bond between the two sisters – how they were checking on each other and they really cared for each other. The thread of the story is very much around that sisterly love.”

Dr Steves was initially shocked by the short story:

“It’s quite a shocking story! But then I reflected on the fact that that’s what we talked about – as we start to think about technologies to predict future health, we need to make sure that it’s equally available and fairly available, and consider what happens if it’s not the right time for someone to make those choices about their health.”

Oram stressed that he intended the story to be provocative – but it’s not all doom and gloom. Featured in Biohacked & Begging is a comment piece from Dr Steves in response to Zygosity Saves the Day, where she discusses what we need to do to ensure that we don’t end up with the frightening healthcare system described in Oram’s story.

Dr Steves summarised:

“It’s that human love and compassion that will save us from this kind of dystopia.”

Biohacked & Begging is available to purchase from bookshops and online in paperback and ebook form.

Click to watch an interview with Stephen Oram and Dr Claire Steves below about Zygosity Saves the Day.

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