Kids get cavities. Dentists fill them. It’s a fairly old arrangement, but it may
soon come to an end if cavities go the way of smallpox. Jeffrey Hillman’s
company, Oragenics, has patented a simple swab of bacteria that when wiped
across a set of teeth will (allegedly) grant a lifetime of protection from tooth
decay. By this fall, Hillman, a dental researcher at the University of Florida,
will begin testing the new strain on 15 to 30 volunteers.
Normally, bacteria called Streptococcus mutans grow on human teeth and convert
sugar into lactic acid, which rots enamel. Hillman engineered a strain of S.
mutans that doesn’t produce lactic acid; instead, it carries an antibiotic that
helps it displace the indigenous cavity-inducing strain. “The dentist will apply
our bacteria and then tell the patient to go home and eat sugar,” Hillman says.
As luck would have it, Tootsie Rolls, lollipops, et al. help to colonize the new
strain, but instead of creating a cavity the sugar helps form a tooth security
guard, thus revolutionizing the practice of modern dentistry. “I think that’s a
fair way to put it,” says Kenneth Burrell, senior director of the American
Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs. But there could be a hitch
with the FDA: Hillman is not sure whether patients can transfer the new strain
to others with, say, just a kiss. Hillman is confident there will be no
“horizontal transmission,” but just to be sure, the spouses of Phase I testers
will be monitored. If the strain stays put, it could go commercial within five
to six years.