Last updated October 25, 2017 at 2:58 pm
Professor Eric Reynolds AO is the recipient of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation. Thirty years ago, as a young dental academic, he 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. Products using Recaldent have generated sales of over $2 billion and it has been estimated they’ve saved over $12 billion in dental treatment costs worldwide.
Eric now leads the University of Melbourne’s Dental School and travels the world, working with Australian and international businesses to create new products to further improve oral health.
“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.”
As a young researcher at the University of Melbourne, Eric was looking at the effect of nutrition on tooth decay. He found anecdotal evidence and some epidemiological research that suggested dairy products could reduce the risk of tooth decay.
Eric and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments that found that milk and cheese did reduce the risk of tooth decay. They looked further into the components of milk and found this effect was due a protein in milk called ‘casein’ that contained a unique form of calcium.
Eric was able to isolate casein into a concentrated material and demonstrated that this material helped teeth remineralise and repaired the enamel.
Upon the advice of his mentors, he patented the material and began his journey of using this technology to improve oral health across the globe.
Early on Eric presented his invention at international meetings and was contacted by large oral companies who wanted to evaluate samples. Soon, the Australian dairy industry got involved – Bonlac Foods (now part of Fonterra) and Dairy Australia. They started manufacturing the material, trademarked as Recaldent. Today all the Recaldent used around the world is made in Melbourne with Australian milk.
The first major company to use Recaldent was Warner-Lambert from the USA. They put it into Trident sugar-free gum and funded a clinical trial that showed that the gum lowered the risk of tooth decay in children.
Today gum with Recaldent is sold around the world and in Japan it’s the largest selling sugar-free gum. The success of the gum in Japan led to a new opportunity with GC Corp, a Japanese dental supplies business with a global reach. Their core product is a dental cream called Tooth Mousse, often used after dental work, that also strengthens ‘chalky teeth’ and reduces tooth sensitivity.
“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.”
He 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.
But that’s not enough, Eric is now tackling another major oral health challenge – gum disease.
“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,” explains 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.”
At the Oral Health Cooperative Research Centre, which Eric leads, they are working on tests for gum disease and a vaccine that could break the cycle of infection in people with severe gum disease.
Eric is a leading research and innovator, improving the oral health of millions across the globe and extremely deserving of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.
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Image credit: top: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear, below, Eric and Mr Makoto Nakao, Chairman of GC Corporation: George Trifunovic, Ardmillan Studios
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