Gum disease is a cornerstone illness that threatens not just our teeth, but also our kidneys, our heart, and even our life. Combatting gum disease is critical, and it can often be accomplished using antibiotics. But with the growth of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, people are looking for new strategies for controlling gum disease, and it seems that the exciting new material graphene might just be one of them.
Graphene is a form of carbon that is essentially a one-atom-thick sheet. It’s actually very similar to graphite in many ways, and it’s theorized that small amounts of graphene were created as part of the manufacture of graphite pencils. However, the material is pretty new: we’ve only been able to isolate it in appreciable quantities since 2003.
And it’s only since then that we’ve been able to appreciate its amazing qualities, such as a strength that is many times greater than steel, although we’re not entirely sure how much stronger it is. One theoretical approach estimated that it would take the weight of a car to push a pencil through a sheet of graphene that was the same thickness as plastic wrap.
Graphene oxide has been shown to effectively attack three different types of oral bacteria: Streptococcus mutans (the primary culprit in tooth decay), Fusobacterium nucleatum (which may foster cancer growth), and Porphyromonas gingivalis. When researchers treated colonies of these bacteria with graphene oxide, the cell walls were damaged, allowing the contents of the cells to leak out. Essentially, graphene acts like a bath of razor blades to cut open the oral bacteria cells.
If the thought of putting microscopic razor blades into your mouth gives you some pause, maybe it should. The press release from the American Chemical Society promoting the benefits of graphene for gum disease mentions that graphene “can inhibit the growth of some bacterial strains with minimal harm to mammalian cells,” but there’s no reference to research in support of this statement. Although some people are rosy about the safety of graphene, research from Brown University suggests that humans could be hurt by graphene the way oral bacteria are.
So this technology may never become a useful approach for gum disease.