Preventing cavities might someday be as easy as popping a daily vitamin, thanks to a previously unidentified strain of bacteria recently discovered by University of Florida Health researchers.
The bacteria in question, a strain of Streptococcus that is currently called A12, has exhibited an ability to control its evil twins – the bad bacteria that causes tooth decay and gum disease.
The researchers hope that they will be able to harness the power of A12 in a probiotic pill that will make mouths hostile to decay-causing bacteria.
Healthy mouths typically have a relatively neutral pH level – balanced between acid and alkaline. But some of the over 500 species of microscopic living organisms present in your mouth secrete acidic waste products. Good oral hygiene keeps the bacteria in check so that your mouth can maintain a neutral pH environment.
Oral bacteria feed on carbohydrates that you consume. A12 has a potent ability to battle a particularly harmful kind of streptococcal bacteria called Streptococcus mutans, which metabolizes sugar into lactic acid, contributing to acidic conditions in the mouth that form cavities. The UF researchers found that A12 not only helps neutralize acid by metabolizing arginine in the mouth, it also often kills Streptococcus mutans.
Bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans also produce their own food, a substance called dextran. Besides serving as a snack for bacteria, dextran also functions as a glue that allows bacteria to affix themselves to the surface of your teeth, creating a “biofilm” commonly referred to as plaque.
This bacteria-created acidic environment weakens teeth and leads to decay. And over time, without proper oral hygiene and dental care, the plaque clinging to teeth works its way under the gums, resulting in oral infections. Bacterial plaque is the primary cause of 90% of all dental disease.
A12 interferes with Streptococcus mutans’ ability to carry out its normal processes that it needs to cause disease. When its is in an environment where A12 is present, Streptococcus mutans does not grow very well or make biofilm effectively.
A probiotic pill containing A12, assuming it ever reaches the marketplace, will obviously not replace brushing, flossing and regular professional dental cleanings and care. It would support these efforts by helping you create a hostile environment where those bad bacteria can’t thrive.
The research was led by Robert Burne, Ph.D., associate dean for research and chair of the UF College of Dentistry’s department of oral biology and and Marcelle Nascimento, D.D.S., Ph.D., an associate professor in the UF College of Dentistry’s department of restorative dental sciences.
It built on previous research by Burne, Nascimento and others who found two main compounds that, when broken down into ammonia, helps neutralize acid in the mouth. These compounds are urea, which everyone secretes in the mouth, and arginine, an amino acid.
Burne and Nascimento had also previously found that both adults and children with few or no cavities were better at breaking down arginine than people with cavities.
“Like a probiotic approach to the gut to promote health, what if a probiotic formulation could be developed from natural beneficial bacteria from humans who had a very high capacity to break down arginine?” said Burne.
“You would implant this probiotic in a healthy child or adult who might be at risk for developing cavities. However many times you have to do that — once in a lifetime or once a week, the idea is that you could prevent a decline in oral health by populating the patient with natural beneficial organisms.”
The researchers sequenced the entire genome of A12 and plan to turn this discovery into a tool to screen for people who are at a higher risk for developing cavities, in combination with other factors such as a patient’s diet and their oral hygiene habits.
“We may be able to use this as a risk assessment tool,” Nascimento said. “If we get to the point where we can confirm that people who have more of this healthy type of bacteria in the mouth are at lower risk of cavities, compared to those who don’t carry the beneficial bacteria and may be at high risk, this could be one of the factors that you measure for cavities risk.”
While the researcher are hard at work in their lab, the best defense against destructive oral bacteria is consistent removal of plaque. If its left alone for about 48 hours, it begins to harden – this is called tartar – and is extremely difficult to remove by simple brushing and flossing.
And no matter how effectively you brush and floss, some bacteria will form plaque in places you can’t reach – in the tiny nooks, crannies and cracks of your teeth. You need professional cleanings to remove this material before it causes dental decay.
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