Thirty years ago, a young dental researcher discovered a protein in dairy milk that repairs and strengthens teeth. Today, that protein, sold as Recaldent, is used by millions of people every day as they chew gum and visit the dentist.
The inventor, Eric Reynolds, now leads the University of Melbourne’s dental school and travels the world, working with Australian and global businesses to create new products to further improve oral health.
Products using Recaldent have generated sales of over $2 billion to-date, and it has been estimated they’ve saved over $12 billion in dental treatment costs worldwide.
But he’s not finished on his mission to save the world’s teeth. His team have also developed a test and vaccine for severe gum disease which are now being commercialised by CSL and their partners.
“Oral diseases are the most prevalent diseases of humankind,” Eric says. One in four Australians have cavities and/or gum disease and the cost of treatment in Australia alone is over $8 billion.
For inventing and commercialising Recaldent, Professor Eric Reynolds receives the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.
Eric was a young dental academic looking at the effect of nutrition on tooth decay. There were anecdotes and some epidemiological evidence that dairy products could reduce the risk of tooth decay. So, he and his colleagues started a series of experiments and confirmed that milk and cheese did reduce the risk of tooth decay.
They looked further into the components of milk and found the effect was due to a unique form of calcium that’s present in milk, in a protein called casein. “We broke up the protein and made these little ‘nano-complexes’ of calcium stabilised by fragments of the casein protein.” They showed that this material helped teeth remineralise and repaired the enamel.
“As a young researcher I was fortunate to have good mentors. They sent me to the University of Melbourne’s commercial office. We patented the invention, and that really started the journey to develop the technology.”
When Eric started talking at international meetings about the invention the large oral companies wanted samples to evaluate. That’s when the Australian dairy industry got involved – firstly Bonlac Foods (now part of Fonterra), and then Dairy Australia. They started manufacturing the material, trademarked as Recaldent. Today all the Recaldent used around the world is made in Melbourne using Australian dairy milk.
The first company to use Recaldent was a US company, Warner-Lambert. They put it into Trident sugar-free gum and funded a clinical trial that showed that the gum would lower the risk of tooth decay in children around 12 to 13 years old.
Today gum with Recaldent is sold around the world and in Japan it’s the largest selling sugar-free gum. That’s led to some surreal ‘Lost in Translation moments’ when Eric’s smiling face appeared on Tokyo buses, and he appeared in television commercials with leading Japanese actress Yuko Takeuchi.
The success of the gum in Japan led to a new opportunity with GC Corp, a Japanese dental supplies business with a global reach.
“GC Corp are a highly innovative company,” says Eric. “They’ve incorporated Recaldent into a wide range of products that are now available in over 50 countries.” The core product is a dental cream called Tooth Mousse, often used after dental work. It also strengthens ‘chalky teeth’ and reduces tooth sensitivity.
Eric continues to improve Recaldent, and a recent US study showed that use of a combination of Recaldent products including a new toothpaste completely eliminated tooth decay in children.
Eric is also tackling the other major oral health challenge – gum disease or peridontitis.
“Most of us will get a bit of mild gum disease or peridontitis from time to time when ‘bad’ bacteria in our mouths get out of balance with ‘good’ bacteria,” says Eric. “Bacteria get between our gums and our teeth and an inflammation kicks off. If we’re unlucky then the peridontitis bacterium moves in, leading to bone loss and ultimately our teeth fall out.” Peridontitis is also implicated in other issues from rheumatoid arthritis to oral cancer.
Eric and the Oral Health Cooperative Research Centre, which he leads, are working on tests for peridontitis and a vaccine that could break the cycle of infection in people with severe gum disease.