When it comes to having healthy teeth and gums, we all know the rituals. Brush twice a day and for some, floss and use oral rinses. These are the gold standard to keep our teeth and gums bright and strong. However, even with these recommendations in place, nearly a quarter of Canadian children and over half of the nation's teenagers suffer from cavities and at least a third of all Canadians require some type of dental treatment.
Advances in oral health are for the most part few and far between. After all, the time, money, and effort required to develop a treatment can be almost too much to bear. Usually, newer treatments are based on unexpected discoveries linked to much larger goals.
The best example in this case is the use of xylitol to prevent cavities. At the time, the molecule was being tested as a sugar substitute. But when children who were using this sugar seemed to have fewer cavities, the oral health world took notice. Now xylitol is recognized by Health Canada as a means to prevent tooth decay.
Another interesting example is the bacterium, Streptococcus salivarius. It was initially described in 1937 but was thought to be just one of many species of bacteria in the mouth. But in the 1990s, researchers discovered the bacterium competed against species known to cause cavities. This led to the development of gums and tablets used to improve oral health, many of which are also approved by Health Canada.
We may have another oral health breakthrough in the making.
Now, thanks to an American group of researchers, we may have another oral health breakthrough in the making. They have unveiled a molecule with the potential to keep our mouths healthy. Not surprisingly, much like xylitol and salivarius, this particular chemical is already known in the research community but for an entirely different reason.
It's called ferumoxytol and while it may not be a household word in Canada, for anyone who has suffered from iron deficiency, also known as anemia, it is one of the more promising treatments. The molecule is also one of the best examples of how we can use nanotechnology to improve health. The chemical comes in the form of a nanoparticle, containing an iron core and a sugar coating. Once injected, it quickly goes to work to release the iron such that it raises the level in the blood.
But this mechanism wasn't the reason the authors found this chemical so intriguing. Instead, the team wanted to focus on a rather strange phenomenon known as the nanozyme effect. Somehow, when the nanoparticles enter a biological environment, they cause biochemical reactions usually reserved for proteins known as enzymes. In the case of ferumoxytol, the biochemical reactions lead to the production of bacteria-killing free radicals.
With this information in hand, the group wanted to see if they could use ferumoxytol to generate free radicals in the mouth to eliminate the bacteria that cause plaque. But before they could get to that stage, they first needed to test the product in the lab to see if it could actually kill plaque bacteria. Not surprisingly, that went incredibly well. The molecule generated the free radicals and eliminated the plaque bacteria.
The next step was to see if the killing action could prevent tooth erosion that leads to cavities. Again, they did this testing in the lab using enamel collected and cultured from human teeth. As expected, the nanoparticle treatment did the job effectively and the tooth's natural protective coating was maintained.
The results were beyond promising.
With these results confirmed, the team believed the molecule was ready for the ultimate test in a living animal. They chose a well-known rat model used to mimic dental damage in children. Baby rats were fed a diet rich in sugar to increase the chances for cavities. They also were exposed to plaque-causing bacteria in high enough concentrations to ensure the teeth would erode. Once the bacteria had started to wear away at the rat's teeth, it was time to put ferumoxytol to the test.
The nanoparticle was added in the same way as we would use mouthwash. The animals were treated twice a day for three weeks, about the same amount of time as a human might go through a bottle. When the experiment was completed, the teeth were inspected for any signs of damage.
The results were beyond promising. The use of the chemical reduced the presence of any damage by half. But that wasn't the best part. The treatment had completely eliminated both moderate and severe damage of the teeth. In essence, they had found a way to prevent cavities.
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For the authors, ferumoxytol passed all the tests with flying colours. The molecule formed the free radicals, killed the bacteria, and prevented enamel erosion just as they had hoped. The results also opened the door for similar experiments in humans. In light of the already approved status of the nanoparticle, these tests could come sooner than later.
It may still be a few years before you see ferumoxytol in your dentist's office but the potential to reduce the rather high rates of cavities in children and teenagers is quite high. When this happens, we'll have another weapon in the fight against tooth decay. Until then, just make sure to keep brushing those teeth twice a day and make that visit to the dentist at least twice per year.
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