The Benefits of Autopsies to Advance Oral Health

Dental and medical professionals seek to integrate research autopsies into precision oral medicine to study the links between oral and general health.

By Theresa Ahearn

The Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) recently published an innovative review highlighting the significance of integrated research autopsies in precision oral medicine. The cover story, "The Need for Integrated Research Autopsies in the Era of Precision Oral Medicine," is a collaborative effort between researchers from various institutions, emphasizing the importance of studying oral-systemic health and its role in multiple diseases, including autoimmunity, infectious diseases, craniofacial genetics, and cancer.

The Potential of Autopsy in Dental Research

Autopsies, from cardiovascular diseases to viral pandemics, have long been invaluable in disease research. However, compared to medicine, autopsy use in dentistry is somewhat limited.

Autopsies are not widely used in dentistry due to the difficulty of analyzing and interpreting the results of such studies. The authors delve into how an autopsy of the entire craniofacial complex is difficult because of the complexity of the anatomy and the lack of sample collection and storage. Additionally, ethical, religious, and aesthetic concerns are also a factor when considering autopsy in dentistry.

Despite the limitations of autopsy in dentistry, data collected from autopsies have already proved beneficial in helping to understand better salivary gland tissues and their role in viral transmission.

In fact, the authors argue that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the research autopsy was an essential tool in understanding the oral infection axis of the virus. Additionally, autopsy studies have been used to further advance the understanding of periodontal diseases since the early 19th century. Such studies have allowed researchers to make discoveries about the local and systemic mechanisms of the disease, which have helped to define it further and develop treatments for it.

Challenges of Using Integrated Research Autopsies to Advance Precision Oral Medicine

While the authors recognize the potential of integrated research autopsies to advance precision oral medicine, they know the challenges, including difficulty obtaining samples, ethical considerations, and a lack of collaboration in the research community.

To address the sampling challenges, the researchers suggest using non-invasive imaging techniques, such as MRI and CT scans, which can provide detailed images of the internal and external structures of the mouth while better preserving the subject and mitigating invasive procedures that could lead to disfigurement.

To tackle the need for more cooperation in the research field, the authors propose the establishment of transdisciplinary teams consisting of oral health research centers, dental schools, academic hospitals, and autopsy centers. This collaboration would allow for the normalized use of autopsies as a beneficial tool for understanding disease pathology. Furthermore, this could help create new autopsy centers, participants, and practices that could be applied in future viral outbreaks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.


In conclusion, JADA's cover story emphasizes the significance of integrated research autopsies in precision oral medicine. Autopsies can provide a valuable tool to enhance dentists' ability to provide care and improve health. Partnerships among oral health research centers, dental schools, academic hospitals, and associated autopsy centers are integral to achieving global use of research autopsies in precision oral medicine.

With March happening to be Oral Health Month, let us take the opportunity to recognize the invaluable contributions that autopsies make in precision oral medicine and to promote a research culture that embraces it.

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Author: Theresa Ahearn is a versatile writer based in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Her diverse portfolio spans academia, research, healthcare, news, and technology. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from the New York Institute of Technology and a Master of Science from Central Connecticut State University.

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