This Natural Chemical May Replace Triclosan and Improve Oral Health

05/25/2015 08:03 EDT | Updated 05/25/2016 05:59 EDT

The quest for healthier teeth and gums seems to be endless and chemistry has come a long way to improve our oral health. Fluoride and sodium bicarbonate -- baking soda -- are the gold standards but they can only do so much. Other ingredients have since found their way into our toothpastes and mouthwashes to better our chances for a whiter smile.

One chemical being used today is triclosan. It's the main ingredient in "antibacterial" soaps. It has the ability to kill as well as prevent the growth of harmful microbes. Although originally intended for the skin, in the 1980s it was considered for oral health. When added, triclosan not only improves oral health but also outperforms normal toothpastes. Some companies have taken advantage of this improvement and now add the molecule to their formulations with the claim of a total health experience.

But over the years, the shine of triclosan has faded due to a combination of problems found in the lab. The first deals with resistance. Certain bacterial species, including those known to cause infection, have or can acquire a mechanism to prevent the killing action and render the chemical useless. The second involves a concern for cross-resistance. The presence of triclosan can also contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance.

While the lustre of this antibacterial addition has all but disappeared, the search for alternatives has not been entirely successful. No matter how valiant the attempts, nothing has quite been able to defeat triclosan's dominance in the oral health area. Also, with no indication of resistance forming in the mouth, there has been little reason to force the issue.

That may soon change as a natural alternative to triclosan has been growing in both presence and popularity. It's called a chalcone. The molecule is found in many plants as it is required to make a group of molecules known as flavonoids. These chemicals are best known as the basis for pigment in various flowers and fruits. But they have many other roles including UV protection from the sun, antioxidant activity, and antibacterial defense against pathogens.

Most of the work with chalcones has focused on the prevention of a variety of non-oral pathogens, such as fungi, mosquitoes, and worms. But the chemical also has antibacterial properties and can be used against a variety of pathogens. Most are skin and gut based but one happens to be involved in oral health. It's called Streptococcus mutans.

The bacterium is usually found in the mouth and for the most part won't cause troubles. But, if it is allowed to overgrow and form large colonies known as biofilms, this species can not only cause cavities but also erode gums tissue. When it comes to microbial oral health, there is no greater priority than preventing a S. mutans biofilm.

But knowing chalcones can be effective against S. mutans is only part of the solution. How exactly the chemical accomplishes this task is equally important. Last week, an international team of researchers provided insight into the mechanism behind the antibacterial effect and provided hope for future generations of naturally antibacterial oral health products.

The team used a form of chalcone known to exist in many plants, trans-chalcone. It is readily available and could be the best option for commercial production. They then looked at how the chemical could prevent the formation of S. mutans biofilms. But, they didn't actually use the whole bacteria. Their focus wasn't on killing; it was on preventing biofilms.

To accomplish this goal, the group had to use one of the molecules responsible for the formation of colonies. It's called Sortase A. This protein helps bacteria attach to surfaces and improves the likelihood of biofilm formation. Without it, there can be no disease. For the researchers, this was the perfect target.

When trans-chalcone was mixed with sortase, things started to happen. With as little as a few milligrams of the chemical, the activity of the biofilm-former decreased. It wasn't immediate; some time was needed for optimal effect. But within eight hours, almost all of the potential for a biofilm was gone.

What made chalcone even more promising was its mechanism. It was thought to simply get in the way of sortase to prevent it from functioning normally but this was a gross underestimation. Instead, the chemical actually changed sortase at the molecule level so it could not ever act again. This offered even more hope that chalcone could not only reduce the chance for biofilms in the short term but also to prevent them entirely with continued use.

At this point, the team decided it was time to put trans-chalcone to the real test. They added it to a culture of mutans and waited to see what happened. Sure enough, the chemical did its job as biofilms were inhibited. It wasn't perfect but considering this was a trial run, the results were impressive.

This study reveals how looking for natural alternatives to current chemical is worthwhile. It may take a few years for trans-chalcone to make it to the clinical stages and push aside triclosan for oral health. In the meantime, you may wish to forego triclosan products. Granted, this may mean you will have to brush, rinse, and floss more often, but you'll be ready for the switch away from the chemical once it finally comes.


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