Reporter 439, 27 September 1999

Dental team leading the plaque attacks

Open wide: Professor Colin Robinson shows off the enamel disc that has helped his team identify the true structure of plaque - a world first

University dental researchers have revealed the teeth of even the most committed sweet eater have less plaque than dentists believed, by using fragments of extracted teeth. Their discovery that the tooth-decaying plaque layer is actually full of holes could help develop more effective toothpastes to combat rotting teeth.

The research team in the dental institute used extracted teeth to produce tiny enamel discs, which were glued onto their own teeth. The plaque forming on this molar-mimicking device was then studied with a special microscope, allowing its true structure to be probed for the first time.

"Nobody had ever been able to look at plaque exactly as it forms in the mouth before because it couldn't be removed without destroying its structure," said project leader Professor Colin Robinson.

Studying plaque scraped from a tooth was as fruitless as attempting to understand how a steam engine works by crashing the Flying Scotsman into a wall and picking over the wreckage, he said. "Developing the disc using human enamel was a real breakthrough," he added.

The image of a solid layer of plaque that generations of tooth-brushers have grown up was proved wrong by analysing week-old growth. The complex layers of bacteria growing on the enamel disc were irregular and full of channels and voids. Professor Robinson said this discovery will help researchers understand how anti-decay agents, such as fluoride, are taken up and dispersed around the teeth and gums, and so help develop more effective treatments.

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