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What's Ahead for Reducing Cavities

Efforts to reduce cavities don't end there. One of the most promising preventives on the horizon is a vaccine-like product against decay. In April 1998, British scientists reported that they had developed a plant-based treatment, which, when applied to the teeth, effectively prevented Streptococcus bacteria, the main bacteria involved in tooth decay in humans, from growing in the mouth for up to four months.

In the United States, researchers funded by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research are studying a similar preventive, known as "pl antibodies." Using genetic engineering techniques, scientists transfer a gene for antibodies specific for streptococci to the tobacco plant, which produces large quantities of these antibodies. Antibodies purified from the tobacco plant are then applied to the teeth with a goal of preventing streptococci from adhering to the teeth.

"The concept is good," Mangan says, but notes that the high cost of genetic engineering and the bother of applying the substance on a routine schedule may make the product somewhat impractical.

Other research, he says, focuses on a vaccine that boosts children's immune systems to prevent decay. The intent of this experimental product is to stimulate the body's own production of antibodies to prevent streptococci from adhering to the teeth.

While these experimental products promise an even brighter dental outlook for future generations, kids today can look forward to a life of dental care that even their parents never envisioned.

"If you can reduce the anxiety that often accompanies dental treatment," FDA's Runner says, "that's a very positive step, especially for children. That's where a lot of these devices have the most potential -- in children."

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