Fortifying saliva's defenses to fight cavities

By - Bad Breath Expert

SUMMARY:  Harvard and MIT scientists are developing ways to increase the shield-like bacteria in saliva to fight cavities.

Posted: November 21, 2014

Scientists are looking to bolster the mouth's native defense bacteria in saliva to circumvent cavities, according to a new study published in the the journal Applied and Environmental Biology.

The research, conducted in a collaborative effort between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reinforced the fact that salivary mucins, essential elements of mucus, actively protect the teeth from the main bacteria that causes cavities, Streptococcus mutans.

Everyone knows that sugar leads to cavities, but few realize that the No. 1 cause of cavities is actually S. mutans, which is found naturally in the mouth. Think about S. mutans as a partner in crime with sugar, combining to build plaque that erodes teeth. Scientifically speaking, the bacteria uses sticky polymers to form biofilm, a surface-associated bacterial community that's encased in secreted materials. As S. mutans grows, it creates organic acids that dissolve dental enamel, resulting in microscopic holes in teeth, or what we know as cavities. 

Building a bacterial shield
The researchers suggest that increasing salivary mucins in the mouth might be a better way to shield against dental caries than sealants and fluoride treatment. 

"The big question is how can you build a habitat, an eco-niche - which is in the mouth in the mucosa and generally on wet surfaces of the body - how can you build an eco-niche which allows the good and beneficial microbes to thrive while keeping the potentially harmful microbes from doing damage to the body?" Dr. Katharina Ribbeck, a biochemist and assistant professor in the department of biological engineering at MIT, told "And with the mucins, we find they very elegantly manage to do so by preventing damage by microbes, by preventing them from attaching to surfaces."

A wealth of microbes would mean a lot of good things for the mouth: It could help break down food and reduce bad breath while possibly boosting immune function. 

Avoid attachment, reduce tooth decay
For the study, a hydroxyapatite (a key ingredient of bone and teeth) was used as a stand-in for tooth surfaces in the lab. The origin of S. mutans, Ribbeck pointed out, is not the presence of S. mutans, but rather the bacterium's firm attachment to dental surfaces.

"Once these microbes attach themselves to the surface of teeth, they grow in this location with a matrix, and once they form this community, this group of bacteria, they become really difficult to remove," Ribbeck told

Salivary mucins keep bad bacteria from clinging to teeth by keeping it suspended in a liquid medium. Therefore, natural saliva could greatly reduce the risk of tooth decay. 

Dental caries (cavities) are often caused by a decrease in normal saliva production. Saliva serves as the mouth's natural cleansing agent, rinsing away food debris and bacteria. When levels of saliva are lowered - be it from dehydration, dry mouth, sleeping or other circumstances - oral health problems like cavities as well as halitosis and gingivitis can arise.

"We hope to find ways to replenish mucins, to reconstitute the natural protective system," Ribbeck concluded to the source.

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