The method is still experimental. So it won't help your teeth if you eat too much Halloween candy this year. But if successful, it might one day help thwart tooth decay.
The toothy tool comes from scientists including Wenyuan Shi, Ph.D., of the School of Dentistry at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). They call their tool "STAMP" (specifically targeted antimicrobial peptides).
Basically, STAMP is a tiny protein that knocks out a cavity-causing bacterium without harming healthy bacteria.
The scientists targeted a bacterium called Streptococcus mutans (S. mutans), which causes tooth decay and dental cavities. Their goal: Kill S. mutans without harming any of the hundreds of other types of bacteria found in the mouth.
Don't get grossed out. Some of those bacteria are healthy, Shi explains in a news release from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, one of the study's sponsors. "The good bacteria are mixed in with the bad ones," Shi says.
Current treatments "simply clear everything away," Shi adds. "That can be a problem because we have data to show that the pathogens [the bad bacteria] grow back first."
Shi's team used DNA data to precisely target S. mutans with STAMP.
STAMP worked in a series of lab tests, including a watery clash with S. mutans in test tubes containing saliva.
Will stamping out S. mutans spell trouble for the mouth? Maybe not. About 10 percent to 15 percent of people don't have S. mutans in their mouths, "and they do just fine without it," Shi says, adding that STAMP studies are already under way in people.
Meanwhile, remember to brush and floss your teeth and get regular dental checkups.
SOURCES: Eckert, R. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, Oct. 23, 2006; online edition. News release, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, National Institutes of Health.
By Miranda Hitti
Reviewed by Louise Chang, M.D