A first-of-its-kind, plaque-fighting chewing gum could change the way Army dentists treat soldiers and help save billions of dollars in dental care.
The anti-cavity gum, nicknamed "Combat Gum," has been in the works for seven years.
The peppermint-flavored gum was envisioned for troops deployed to austere environments with no running water.
But as the work progressed, researchers at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research saw a wider need.
The U.S. spends more than $100 billion a year in dental services, said Col. (Dr.) Robert Hale, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon and commander of the ISR's dental and trauma research detachment at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.
The Army's intent would be to prescribe the gum to high-risk soldiers, Hale said. They would be asked to chew the gum for 20 minutes, three times a day, after each meal. The effort should reduce plaque and, therefore, tooth decay.
The gum is not meant to replace brushing or flossing.
"Oral health is essential to warriors on the battlefield and could potentially save the military countless hours and dollars in dental health. [And] it would save a lifetime of dental disease for a significant population."
The gum contains an anti-microbial peptide that fights plaque, cavities and periodontal disease.
Kai Leung, a microbiologist for the dental and trauma research detachment, is the principal investigator for the anti-plaque chewing gum. He discovered the compound by studying bacteria colonies that mimic the bacteria found in the mouth, Hale said.
Combat Gum, at least at first, would cost about $2 per piece. With that in mind, not every soldier would get it. It would be reserved for high-risk soldiers, of which there are many.
About half of new soldiers are considered high-risk. These are soldiers with three or more cavities or decaying teeth. Overall, high-risk soldiers total 15 percent of the force.
Out of all disease-related, nonbattle injuries that cause the evacuation of soldiers, more than 10 percent are due to dental emergencies.
The Army has produced enough "Combat Gum" to be used in a clinical trial, set for in February. The Oral Health Research Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is conducting the yearlong study with 137 civilian subjects.
If successful, the gum will be tested on larger groups of subjects in accordance with the Food and Drug Administration, Hale said. If it performs as advertised, the gum could then become available for the Army. The long-term goal is for Combat Gum to be available over the counter, like nicotine gum, Hale said.