Interviewee: Wenyuan Shi, UCLA
Licking Tooth Decay
We nag our kids to brush, and then we suffer with them through the dentist’s drill ordeals.
Shi laments that while the cause of tooth decay is known to be an infection, dentistry today still uses a “mechanical” approach to disease.
He says that there are 100 trillion bacteria in our mouth, consisting of 700 different species, but only 12 of those species cause us any harm. And one in particular, Streptococcus mutans, is a major factor in tooth decay.
“What we really try to do is to detect the pathogen who is responsible for the tooth decay, and treating the pathogen or get rid of the pathogen way before they [are] damaging the tooth,” says Shi.
The challenge of that approach is that some of those bugs are actually beneficial. So Shi is working on ways to target the harmful bacteria while leaving the beneficial ones alone. “It’s like a dandelion infection in your lawn,” he says, “and if you use a general herbicide, you do kill the dandelion, but you kill the grass as well; and the moment you stop using your herbicide, who comes back first? It’s always the weeds.”
Shi looked to his Chinese roots for a traditional herbal remedy that targets only the bad bacteria. “We did a lot of the screening, and to our great surprise, one of the top hit we got out of the 2,000 medicinal herbs is licorice. And, as you know, many cultures have been chewing the licorice roots as a way to actually promoting oral health,” he says.
As they reported in the Journal of Natural Products, Shi’s team isolated the active compounds in licorice and showed they kill decay-causing bacteria in lab tests. With corporate partner C3-Jian, Inc., they developed an extract that would specifically combat S. mutans.
To get the compounds into extended contact with teeth, they put them in a lollipop, manufactured and sold by Dr. John’s Candies, which specializes in sugar-free candy. The lollipops are orange flavored.
You can’t get the same effect from just eating licorice. Most licorice sold in the U.S. is actually flavored with anise. Plus it contains lots of sugar, which is bad for your teeth.
Shi says parents like that kids like them. “There are some of those parents you know come to walk to me and saying oh, you know, how grateful they’re finding this technology helping, you know, their kids.”
Shi says the lollipops passed a series of safety tests and they are currently undergoing human trials to establish effectiveness in actual use.
Next up: lollipops that fight bad breath and periodontal disease, which are each caused by different bacteria.
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