By Cynthia Lee
Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM
What Willy Wonka did for chocolate, UCLA microbiologist Wenyuan Shi is doing for lollipops.
Because of Shi, thousands of orange-flavored lollipops are rolling out of a factory in Middle America into the hands of people eager to lick them. The reason?
The orange-flavored, sugar-free lollipop he and his research team at UCLA's School of Dentistry have devised contains a natural ingredient found in licorice that kills the primary bacterium causing tooth decay, Streptococcus mutans, without harming any of the good bacteria.
Shi's not saying that people should stop brushing or flossing or getting regular cleanings. But while such preventive measures get rid of plaque and reduce tooth decay, they don't target the bacteria like his tasty antimicrobial weapons.
"Once you clean your teeth, the bacteria just grow back right away," he explains. "The human mouth is really the best natural incubator for bacteria — it provides the right temperature and a constant supply of food." Among the 700 kinds of bacteria that live in your mouth are a "dirty dozen," the culprits that cause cavities, he adds. You can try mouthwashes, like Listerine, but they kill both the good and the bad bacteria.
To make his dental smart bomb, Shi conducted 50,000 experiments on 2,000 Chinese herbs before coming up with the most effective germ killer, an active ingredient in the licorice root. A candy manufacturer, which licenses the technology from UCLA, is currently selling the lollipops, marketed as Dr. John's Herbal Lollipop.
Why a lollipop? "It takes about five minutes to kill bacteria," says Shi. "With chewing gum, most of its contents are released in the first 30 seconds. If you use regular candy, people tend to bite it into pieces before swallowing them. Lollipops take 10 minutes to melt. We find it particularly useful for the elderly and kids."
Delta Dental Plan, one of Shi's major grant funders, is currently recruiting 2,000 children in Head Start schools nationwide for its Healthy Teeth Lollipop Project to test the efficacy of Shi's breakthrough. The lollipop is also being tested by residents of two Los Angeles-area convalescent homes.