Dentists Buzzing About Beeswax
Bee secretions could help fight cavities
THURSDAY, Nov. 8, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If you want to prevent cavities, mind your beeswax.
A substance made by honeybees to protect their hives soon could become the greatest weapon in fighting cavities since fluoride, researchers claim.
Called propolis,the substance is a sticky, glue-like material that bees make from the resin of trees and plants and their own secretions. Researchers say propolis halts an enzyme in streptococcus mutans, a microorganism found in the mouths of humans and animals that is the main culprit behind tooth decay.
Bees use propolis to seal holes in their hives and to embalm predators, including wasps, that have invaded their homes. Propolis keeps the dead insects from decomposing in the hive and causing further problems.
This ability to keep organisms from decomposing is what first sparked the researchers' interest in the potential propolis might have as an antiseptic, or antibacterial, agent. Antiseptics reduce the virulence of bacteria or kill enough of it so the human immune system can get rid of it, says Dr. Michel Hyun Koo, a dentist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
In a laboratory test, rats that were given a mouthwash containing propolis twice a day had 60 percent fewer cavities than rats given a mouthwash that didn't contain propolis, Koo says. Rats get cavities the same way humans do, he adds. Koo and his colleagues have been gathering propolis from beehives in Brazil to use in their laboratory experiments.
"The potential is enormous," Koo says. "So far, we haven't found any other agent that is as effective as this natural product."
Propolis will not, however, replace fluoride, he adds.
"The idea would be to use both," Koo says, noting that the two fight cavities in entirely differently ways.
Fluoride helps replenish enamel that's been lost to decay. Researchers believe propolis works by inhibiting an enzyme, called glucosyltransferase, in streptococcus mutans, which is key to the buildup of plaque on teeth. [Koo describes plaque as a biofilm that coats the teeth not unlike slime on a boat hull.]
The enzyme aids the formation of plaque by creating molecules, called glucans, which become the building blocks of plaque. The structure of the biofilm enables bacteria to collect on it and latch onto teeth, Koo says. Cavities form when bacteria metabolize sugar, producing lactic acid that eats away at the enamel.
"If you knock out the enzyme, you prevent dental plaque formation," Koo says. "If you prevent dental plaque formation, you prevent cavities."
But before a propolis mouthwash is ready for market, more research has to be done, he adds.
Propolis is highly complex and contains more than 40 compounds. The amount of each compound varies with the type of bee, and even from hive to hive, he says.
The challenge for researchers is to isolate the active ingredients that combat streptococcus mutans. The University of Rochester and the State University of Campinas in Brazil have applied for a patent on two compounds in propolis that Koo believes are largely responsible for preventing cavities. He would not reveal the precise names of the compounds.
Propolis has been used by humans for thousands of years. Egyptians used it in the mummification process, and today, lotions and creams touting the power of propolis to heal cuts are popular in Europe and Japan. Propolis also is used as a food additive, and some studies say propolis is an antioxidant.
Dr. Martin Taubman, a dentist and professor of oral biology at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and head of immunology at the Forsyth Institute in Boston, says propolis looks promising. "Apparently, it's effective," he says.
But Taubman and his colleagues are working on another method of fighting cavities: a vaccine that would target streptococcus mutans.
The goal is to give children who are between 12 and 24 months old an anticavity vaccine that would prevent tooth decay throughout their lives, Taubman says. The vaccine, which would be squirted into the nose, would stimulate the body's immune system to make antibodies against the bacterial enzyme, thereby neutralizing the destructive activity, he says.