BASF, the world's largest chemical maker, says it has found a way to prevent cavity-causing bacteria from attacking teeth, a development that could be seen in toothpaste, mouthwash and even candy as early as next year.
Using a microorganism related to those used in yogurt cultures, the Germany-based company said it has engineered a process that clusters harmful bacteria in the mouth before they can bind with sugar and form plaque.
The organism and plaque-causing bacteria are then swallowed as part of the mouth's natural cleaning process.
It's safe to swallow the bacteria, known by the scientific name Streptococcus mutans, because it's regularly found in the mouth and humans already digest it constantly, the company said.
"There is a complex dynamic of bacteria that grow on the teeth," said University of Connecticut Health Center's Jason Tanzer, who studied BASF's results and is presenting his findings at an industry conference Thursday. "They can stick to those surfaces and form a film or they can be swallowed."
As part of his study, Tanzer fed two groups of rats a diet high in sugar, but put BASF's product, known as pro-t-action, in only one group's food.
Tooth decay in the group of rats using pro-t-action was far less pronounced than in the group not using the product, a development that Tanzer said was promising.
"I would be rather optimistic about this product," he said.
The active organism in pro-t-action is effectively dead, meaning it doesn't need to be kept cool — like yogurt — and can be used in a wide array of products like sugar-free candy, gum, toothpaste, and possibly beverages like smoothies. To be effective, the product needs to be in the mouth for about 10 to 15 seconds.
"This is not a replacement" for brushing, said Markus Pompejus, a BASF scientist who helped develop the product. "But it clearly helps to improve your daily oral hygiene."
BASF developed pro-t-action with OrganoBalance, a Berlin-based microbiology company.
The companies are mum on human testing — a necessary precursor before any commercial distribution. Still, BASF hopes to have pro-t-action on store shelves by 2010 or 2011.
The company's stock is traded on exchanges in London and Frankfurt, Germany.