Gum disease is a major cause of tooth loss and a challenge to treat. Now, new research suggests why silicon nitride – a ceramic material used in spinal implants – could lead to effective, new types of gum disease treatment.

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Having untreated gum disease not only leads to tooth loss, but it also raises risk of heart attack or stroke.

Periodontitis is a serious, chronic, non-communicable gum disease that damages the soft tissue and bone that support the teeth. Estimates suggest it affects 15-20% of middle-aged (35-44 years) adults.

The disease starts when the bacterium Porphyromonas gingivalis infects the tissue around the teeth, giving rise to gum inflammation. If this is not treated, the condition progresses and the bacteria begin to eat away at the bone around the teeth.

Having untreated gum disease not only leads to tooth loss, but it also raises risk of heart attack or stroke.

Treatment options include deep cleaning – such as scaling and root planing – to remove the built-up plaque that harbors bacteria, plus antibiotics and surgery.

However, awareness that – like other types of bacteria – P. gingivalis perishes on contact with the surface of silicon nitride, leads researchers to wonder if this could lead to a new type of treatment.

In the journal Langmuir, a multidisciplined team from Japan and the US describes what it found when it investigated the antimicrobial properties of silicon nitride.

Using a number of techniques (including pH microscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy and Raman microprobe spectroscopy), the team observed the molecular-level interactions between P. gingivalis cells and different surfaces of silicon nitride.

Fast facts about gum disease
  • Gum disease is more common in men than women
  • Risk factors include smoking, diabetes and poor oral hygiene
  • 47% of Americans aged 30 and over have some form of gum disease.

Learn more about gum disease

One of the important effects they noticed was how – after only 6 days of exposure – the chemical reactions with the ceramic material degraded the nucleic acids in the bacterial cells, which, in turn, dramatically reduced their ability to produce essential proteins and fats.

One of the microscopy techniques also revealed the formation of peroxynitrite within the bacterial cells. Peroxynitrite is an unstable compound that damages DNA, proteins and other important cell molecules.

The researchers note how by changing the surface chemistry of silicon nitride – either by chemical etching or thermal oxidation – they could influence peroxynitrite formation and affect bacteria metabolism in different ways.

They conclude that while further studies are needed, their findings show silicon nitride offers a new and promising way to treat gum disease.

Amedica is a company that makes and develops biomedical silicon nitride ceramics. In the following video, they explain how silicon nitride’s biocompatibility and antimicrobial properties make it an ideal material for spine and joint implants. Some of the points they make also give an idea of why the material could be attractive for dentistry applications:

Last month, Medical News Today also learned why one day it may be possible to use probiotic pills to prevent dental cavities.