Tooth decay, or dental caries is an infection that causes the breakdown and eventual destruction of the organic matter of the tooth, and it is one of the most common diseases in the world. New research coming out of the Athlone Institute of Technology in Ireland is showing that coconut oil, a naturally occurring antibiotic, is able to attack bacteria that causes tooth decay. The findings were recently presented at the Society for General Microbiology's Autumn Conference 2012 at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom.
The research team tested the antibacterial action of coconut oil in two states. In its natural state, and in a second state where they treated the coconut oil with enzymes to simulate a process similar to digestion. The oils were then tested against strains of Streptococcus bacteria, common inhabitants of the mouth. What they discovered was that the enzyme-modified coconut oil strongly inhibited the growth of most strains of Streptococcus bacteria including Streptococcus mutans – an acid-producing bacterium that is the primary causative agent in the formation of dental cavities in humans.
This is not the first study to show that partially digested foodstuffs are active against micro-organisms. Earlier work on enzyme-modified milk showed that it was able to reduce the binding of Streptococcus mutans to tooth enamel, which prompted the group to investigate the effect of other enzyme-modified foods on bacteria.
'Dental caries is a commonly overlooked health problem affecting 60-90% of children and the majority of adults in industrialised countries,' said Dr Damien Brady who is leading the research. 'Incorporating enzyme-modified coconut oil into dental hygiene products would be an attractive alternative to chemical additives, particularly as it works at relatively low concentrations. Also, with increasing antibiotic resistance, it is important that we turn our attention to new ways to combat microbial infection.'
This study, however, is just the first step. The research group will further their study to examine how coconut oil interacts with Streptococcus bacteria at the molecular level and discover which other strains of harmful bacteria and yeasts it is active against. Further testing by the group at the Athlone Institute of Technology found that enzyme-modified coconut oil was also harmful to the yeast Candida albicans that can cause thrush.
The work also contributes to our understanding of antibacterial activity in the human gut. 'Our data suggests that products of human digestion show antimicrobial activity. This could have implications for how bacteria colonise the cells lining the digestive tract and for overall gut health,' explained Dr Brady. 'Our research has shown that digested milk protein not only reduced the adherence of harmful bacteria to human intestinal cells but also prevented some of them from gaining entrance into the cell. We are currently researching coconut oil and other enzyme-modified foodstuffs to identify how they interfere with the way bacteria cause illness and disease,' he said.
For now the researchers suggest that enzyme-modified coconut oil has potential as a marketable antimicrobial that could be of particular interest to the oral healthcare industry.
Their findings were presented at the Society for General Microbiology's Autumn Conference 2012, which took place from 3–5 September at the University of Warwick.
The Society for General Microbiology (SGM) is a membership organisation for scientists who work in all areas of microbiology. It is the largest learned microbiological society in Europe with a worldwide membership based in universities, industry, hospitals, research institutes and schools.