Every morning and every night we lean over a basin in our bathrooms, squeeze some gooey paste on to the bristles of a stick, and scrub it all over our teeth - or at least we are told to do this every morning and night.

This daily ritual is a part of most people’s lives and it is all in an attempt to prevent the build-up of harmful bacteria in our mouth which can cause decay, disease and pain. However, for some people this is not a daily ritual. Access to water and hygiene products, lack of knowledge of dental care practices, or disability can all be barriers to standard dental care and in turn some are at high risk of dental problems such as decay and oral diseases.

Dental healthcare is a major issue globally. A vast number of people do not have access to professional dental care and this leads to high rates of dental problems amongst these communities. The occurrence of dental cavities and associated oral conditions is increasing worldwide.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2012, 60-90 per cent of children and nearly 100 per cent of adults worldwide had dental cavities. In Australia, ~ 6 per cent of national health spending was directed to dental care 2009-2012, while the total yearly global cost associated with dental diseases was $442 billion.

To combat this major global challenge a group of researchers with the support of the UOW Global Challenges Program have come together to provide a possible solution that would improve the health and overall lives of millions of people. This team believe that the application of nanoparticles to the tooth surface may provide an answer. 

The team is led by Chief Investigator Ms Dan Yang, a PhD Student who is specialising in the use of anti-fouling and anti-bacterial nanoparticles and their applications in surface coatings. Supervised by Prof. Michael Higgins and Dr Paul Molino (AIIM) Ms Yang said that her research in this field led her to look for a practical and influential application in real world situations that could make a lasting difference.

“The idea came to me because my roommate uses a dental mouthguard and it made me wonder whether I could create a coating, like that to protect teeth from plaque and decay.”

From that moment it became a matter of bringing together a team of researchers through the Global Challenges program that brought enthusiasm and interdisciplinary expertise to the project.

The coating is a solution that will bind to the tooth surface creating a barrier between the tooth and bacteria. This barrier will prevent the bacteria from adhering to the tooth surface, colonising and creating the sticky plaque that causes tooth decay and disease. The surface coating will aim to create complete coverage of the tooth including the gum line, the rough surfaces of the tooth, and existing cavities and damage. This can be achieved by positively charging the solution at application causing it to be attracted to and adhere to the negatively charged tooth surface. Whilst this coating does not replace all the benefits of brushing such as halitosis reduction, removal of food particles and such, it will improve the health outcomes for both those that don’t brush and those who do.

Current research and testing aims to determine a number of key things to ensure any end products are as effective as possible at addressing the overarching health concerns. This includes; working with dentists to create a convenient application method, ensuring longevity in the product, creating a product that is safe, and deciding on the most effective materials to use.

Whilst this project has the potential to improve health outcomes to the general population it has a focus on people in rural and remote communities, socially disadvantaged people, people with a disability, people reliant on the care of others, and the elderly. These are the people who may not be able to conduct daily dental care procedures or may not know its importance. A long lasting and low maintenance solution will provide improved dental health outcomes for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.

The rest of the core team includes: Associate Professor Martina Sanderson-Smith, a molecular microbiologist who has expertise in the study of bacterial biofilm build-up such as those that cause plaque, and anti-bacterial development. Dr Sanderson-smith has also successfully created a model for the testing for biofilm formation that mimics the environment in the mouth.

Dr Susan McInnes, has a deep understanding of primary healthcare and the impact that improved dental health can have on overall health markers, this helped galvanise the project as one that could have massive impact in the health sector. Lecturer Bushra Khan, is a dentist and researcher in the oral health of children and vulnerable communities.

Dan’s supervisors Professor Michael Higgins and Dr. Paul Molino have extensive expertise in the design of nanostructured ultra-low fouling materials and coatings for both biomedical and environmental applications. They are engaged in several industry projects relating to the development of nanoparticle-based and polymer coatings for antifouling applications, and will help guide the materials and coating development component of the project.

By bringing together materials and coating fabrications experts with biologists, dental practitioners, and health experts, global challenges has allowed interdisciplinary expertise to co-operate in the shared goal of creating a solution to the global challenge of dental health with a focus on the disadvantaged and most vulnerable members of society.

Ultimately, this project has the potential to make healthier smiles and lives, globally.

Yang and her team are currently looking for practitioners with experience in dental health promotion, prevention, early intervention and treatment, especially in dental decay prevention to take part in a short interview to assist with her research. If you are enthusiastic and passionate about new technology in dental health care and are interested in participating please contact Dan Yang on Twitter or email globalchallenges@uow.edu.au

This project was funded in 2018 by the UOW Global Challenges program, an interdisciplinary research initiative.

This story was produced by Dylan Nicholson for Global Challenges.

Pictured below is Dan Yang with samples of bovine teeth.

DanYang SIDE