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Scientists at the University of Ulster and King’s College London are collaborating on a pioneering dental study.

They have been awarded £100k by the Leverhulme Trust to explore new evidence of how soft drink beverages cause dental erosion. The condition is a major national health concern, and it is hoped the study will lead to improved prevention and treatment.

The two-year study grant has been awarded to materials scientist and lecturer Dr Patrick Lemoine (pictured) and Professor Brian Meenan, an expert in biomedical materials.

They are members of the Nanotechnology and Integrated BioEngineering Centre (NIBEC) on the Jordanstown campus. They will work with Dr Sanjukta Deb from Kings College London’s Dental Institute.

Prof. Brian Meenan said: “This award from the Leverhulme presents us with an excellent opportunity to establish a formal collaboration of on-going mutual benefit with colleagues at King's Dental Institute.”

Dental erosion is the damage of dental enamel caused by the acidity of carbonated drinks and fruit juices.

“These drinks can act like a descaling solution that you might use to clean your kettle or acid rain that attacks the stonework of ancient limestone buildings, says Dr Lemoine, the principal investigator of the project.

Teeth have in-built shock absorbers, to protect them against a lifetime of impacts, when we chew and grind our teeth. The internal anti-impact component is ‘dentine’.  However, recent research shows that a small amount of soft tissue that occurs within the enamel also plays a similar role.

Dr Lemoine adds “This soft material is made up of proteins and water. It is small in content but very finely dispersed within the enamel and in effect represents the glue that binds the mineral crystals within this material.

“The idea behind the project is a simple one. Acidic ions in these soft drinks can interact with the proteins, modify their folding and structure and change their shock-absorbing capability.

“This is a new way to look at dental erosion. In effect, we are looking at effects on the mortar between the stones rather than the stones themselves. This novel approach has probably not been considered to date because these proteins represent only a very small fraction of the enamel material.”

Among benefits that could spring from the project are the development of improved soft drink beverages, teeth whitening agents and dental restorative materials. And the rewards might not just be confined to teeth.

The toolkit to be used in the study consists of sophisticated atomic force microscopy techniques that can also be used to investigate issues such as protein misfolding that are relevant to several diseases.

Dr Lemoine says: “Proteins play many important roles in the body. Their function is often crucially dependent on their shape, on how they fold.

“Any change in that structure can bring biological havoc, for instance in diseases, such as Alzheimer, Parkinson, cataract, arthritis and prion diseases. Hence, any inroads into the mechanisms of protein misfolding could represent a big potential impact in our understanding and treatment of such conditions.”