With the help of a gum-chomping machine and years of careful chemistry, University of Kentucky researchers have developed a chewing gum that can help replace toothpaste and a toothbrush, thus improving the health of soldiers in the field and children in poor countries.
In what is known around the UK College of Pharmacy as "the military gum project," an anti- microbial known as KSL is infused in chewing gum. KSL is an anti-adhesive and abrasive agent that disrupts and helps dissolve plaque.
And, as every toothpaste commercial has told us for years, fighting plaque is key to good dental health.
Since World War I, thousands of American soldiers have suffered from the extreme form of gingivitis that can result in painful ulcers, infection and bleeding gums. You've probably heard it called "trench mouth."
"Between World War II and Korea and Vietnam, those numbers have not been changing," said Col. Geoffrey Thompson, commander of the Army Dental and Trauma Research Detachment, which sponsored the research at UK.
Even today, about 15 percent of all Army sick calls are related to dental problems, said Thompson, who is a dentist.
Not only do poor teeth take active soldiers out of duty, but getting treatment can endanger others. For every soldier who must be transported to a dentist in Iraq, Thompson said, seven others must ride in a convoy over often treacherous roads.
There are other practical considerations, said Pat DeLuca, a professor in the department of pharmaceutical sciences at UK, who began the research in 2005. Soldiers have told him even the white spot left by rinsing toothpaste can help enemy trackers locate soldiers on the move. And, he said, if a soldier can pack one more bullet or a toothbrush, you can guess what he or she is going to pick.
"It's something that is going to be very beneficial," DeLuca said of the gum.
The gum also could be key in protecting children in impoverished nations from potentially deadly infections, said Abeer Al-Ghananeem, the assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences who became the lead researcher last year.
For example, she said, children born with AIDs in Africa often have serious and painful dental problems. The gum could enhance their quality of life.
The chemical challenge, DeLuca said, was making sure the plaque-fighting agent was released during the course of a good chew, maybe 20 to 30 minutes, not in a burst with the first chomp.
The chewing machine, which operates a series of small pistons that mimic the pressure and pace of a human bite, was key to measuring chemical release of the active ingredients. Thompson estimates the equipment, owned by the Army, cost $100,000 to $200,000.
While the machine helped determine the chemical makeup, the taste, a crisp wintergreen, was determined the more old-fashioned way. Al-Ghananeem and her researchers did a fair amount of chewing.
Clinical trials will begin, and then the Army will look for a manufacturer, Thompson said. Al-Ghananeem envisions that the gum eventually will be available over-the-counter for use by, perhaps, hikers going on remote treks. It is not designed, she said, to be a long-term replacement for a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Still, DeLuca said, something as seemingly simple as gum "can have amazing possibilities."
"We are looking forward to some sort of global attention to the whole project," Al-Ghananeem said.