Could a Mouthwash Do Away With Dental Visits?

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One dental researcher thinks he’s found a way to permanently stave off the cavity-causing bacteria that lead to expensive and costly trips to the dentist.

Wenyuan Shi of the University of California, Los Angeles, has led efforts to develop a mouthwash with technology that kills Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria responsible for cavities.

First, Shi and colleagues had to understand how these bacteria interact in biofilms, or the sticky colonies of microorganisms that build up as plaque on the teeth. Bacteria often latch on to the surfaces of teeth, breaking down food debris and nutrients into acids that can eat away at enamel and form caries (another word for cavities). These harmful plaque build-ups can lead to gum disease and even tooth loss.

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The technology, called “Specifically-Targeted Antimicrobial Peptides” (STAMPs), targets cavity-causing bacteria without interfering with other microbes in the mouth. This differs from most antibiotics that kill unwanted bacteria and do away with the good kind as well.

But after being exposed to Shi’s technology, the good bacteria develop a type of protection that prevents bad bacteria from forming near them in the future.

In a small clinical trial of 12 participants, using the mouthwash once over a four-day period helped lower levels of S. mutans bacteria, lactic acid and demineralization.

It’s not clear how much the mouthwash would cost if approved for use, and more research is needed to test the long-term effects of the rinse. One UCLA press release says Shi has received an investigation grant through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which would support more trials beginning in 2012.

But can the antimicrobial really rid us of the costly and painful experience of tooth decay in our lifetimes?

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We’ll have to wait until the mouthwash undergoes more trials before ditching our toothbrushes and floss. Since the rinse doesn’t affect other bacteria, people who rely on the mouthwash may still feel the need to brush to remove excess plaque. Another general concern may be exerting selective pressures on the bad bacteria, which may have the potential to create bacteria resistant to treatments or antibiotics. It’s unclear if cell signaling creates the same pressures as other antibiotics.

The American Dental Association has warned companies for claiming that products prevent gum disease when there’s not much evidence to do so.

Time will tell if the technology will hit the medicine cabinet as cavities’ No. 1 enemy. It’s also worth mentioning that Shi gained financial support from Colgate-Palmolive and a company he helped establish in 2005.

Photo: Corbis

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