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Written By

Andrew Cramb

College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

8 November 2022

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Dentistry students' award-winning research project reveals a 20-fold increase in soft tissue calcifications

Each year, our JCU Dentistry fourth-year students undertake a major research project, introducing them to the world of research and its relevance to clinical practice. In many cases, the project goes well beyond benefits to the students. This year, five students have tackled a topic not researched in Australia for over 30 years and made important discoveries with implications for dental practitioners.

Fourth-year students Prahamya Balaranjan, Svitlana Cherevko, Brandon Kushnerick, Luca Mayne, and Paul Ripplinger embarked on the project earlier this year, titling their work ‘Prevalence of soft tissue calcifications in the maxillofacial region detected by digital orthopantomogram’.

The team presented their findings at the JCU Dentistry Dental Protection Clinical Day in October, winning the Podium Presentation sponsored by Piksters-Erskine Oral Care. They took a clean sweep for the research poster categories as well, receiving both the Judges Award and the People’s Choice Award. Prahamya shared with us about the project, what she got out of being involved, and what she hopes the team’s findings will lead to next.

How would you summarise your project and what you discovered?

This project aimed to identify the frequency of soft tissue calcifications (STCs) in full-mouth X-rays (OPGs) for an Australian population.

JCU Fourth-year project team: Luca Mayne, Prahamya Balaranjan, Paul Ripplinger, Svitlana Cherevko and Brandon Kushnerick.

What the high prevalence rate means for dental health practitioners and broader patient outcomes

Soft tissue calcifications are abnormal deposits of calcium within the body that may be benign, but they could be diseased. The last time a similar study was conducted in Australia was over 30 years ago. We analysed 2463 of the full-mouth X-rays for the presence of these calcifications from a sample mainly comprised of patients from Cairns, Townsville, and surrounding rural & remote communities.

The findings revealed an 82.9 per cent prevalence rate, which is significantly higher than the previous baseline from 1991 of 4 per cent. In line with current research, there was no significant difference between males and females, and STCs were found to increase with age.

What prompted you and the team to choose this as a focus?

When we started planning the project, we found that the five of us, plus our supervisor Dr Amar Sholapurkar, shared an interest in radiology. So we did a literature search and found similar studies to what we were looking at that had been done internationally, but we quickly realised that the only Australian research on the topic was outdated. We knew that it was important for someone to conduct this project and decided that, instead of waiting for someone else to start the work, we would do it!

How do your project findings relate to patients’ health outcomes?

The importance of finding potential soft tissue calcifications on an X-ray is that it prompts the dentist to ask the appropriate clinical questions, verify their examination findings, and carry out the appropriate management. Since these are often incidental findings, dental practitioners may be the first people to identify medical conditions in a patient, which has a huge impact on the patient's health outcomes.

For example, if there are potential calcified lymph nodes present on the X-ray, the dental practitioner should palpate the appropriate region, and ask for a history of related conditions like tuberculosis or cat scratch disease. Using this information, a referral can be made to the patient's general practitioner, who will then contact the appropriate medical specialist for management.

Another STC, calcified atherosclerotic plaque, signifies the presence of calcification of the carotid artery. If the patient is not already receiving treatment for high blood pressure, they could be at risk of a stroke. So dental practitioners need to be aware of the high presence of STCs so they are vigilant about identifying them and carrying out the appropriate management.

Are there next steps for the projects or anything else you hope will come from this work?

This project has created a baseline, which is exactly that - a baseline for more investigations. We hope that future research will be conducted using this research as a platform to create more data using a wider sample to represent the Australian population and conduct more analysis on the different STC types and their location.

The Fourth-year project team with supervisor
Fourth-year dentistry students presenting their findings at the clinical day
Left: The fourth-year project team with supervisor Dr Amar Sholapurkar. Right: The team presenting their findings at the JCU Dentistry Dental Protection Clinical Day.

What's next?

While it was important to create a current Australian baseline, this research is just the beginning. We hope that our study has created awareness among dental professionals about the high prevalence of STCs in Far North Queensland to ensure that patients receive the treatment they need in a timely manner.

How did it feel to be awarded the winning presentation at the Dentistry Clinical Day?

It was an incredibly humbling experience. Just like the rest of our cohort, we dedicated a large amount of time and effort to this research, so it was rewarding to be recognised!

What did you get out of being involved in this project?

This project has inspired me to get involved in research again in the future.

Like any group work, it has made me realise how important it is to work with a strong team who are dedicated and committed to the project. I am grateful to have worked with colleagues and a supervisor who encouraged and supported each other. Going through the whole process has also made me realise the intricacy and rigour behind the process and how evidence-based research is directly implicated in every decision we make in clinical practice.

It is important that research is continually conducted to improve the way we manage and treat patients individually and the community as a whole.

For over 12 years, JCU Dentistry has produced work-ready, socially-accountable graduate dentists. Read how another fourth-year research project has highlighted how JCU Dentistry graduates are improving oral health in regional, rural and remote communities.

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