Originally created 12/26/96

New chewing gums may repair cavities



NEW YORK - A chewing gum that stops cavities before they begin? Sounds farfetched, but two companies - one large and one small - both think they have a formula.

Leaf Inc., a big Chicago-based confectioner that makes such teeth-spoilers as Milk Duds and Good 'n Plenty, hopes to win government permission to promote its sugarless gum XyliFresh as the first to curb bacteria and reverse early decay. XyliFresh's active ingredient is the artificial sweetener xylitol, long accepted as a cavity fighter in parts of Europe.

Enamelon Inc., a tiny start-up company based in the New York suburb of Yonkers, wants to go several steps further. It holds the patents on calcium phosphate, a chemical already in saliva that company officials say beats xylitol in rebuilding teeth.

Enamelon sold $10.5 million worth of stock to the public this fall with promises to create an entire calcium phosphate product line including toothpaste, mouthwash, gum and perhaps mints and other candies.

"I think this is the most significant advance since Crest introduced toothpaste with fluoride," said Enamelon's founder and chairman, dentist Steven Fox.

Leading dental researchers and marketing consultants say both products have potential, but have yet to prove they can make a successful jump from the laboratory to the{your} local store.

To be sure, cavities aren't the problem they once were. Thanks to fluoride, the typical American will get just eight by age 17, compared with 18 a couple of decades ago, federal research shows.

Still, 84 percent of teens will get at least one cavity, so the problem is far from solved.

Infusing a chewing gum with cavity-fighting chemicals has a distinct advantage over toothpaste, said {Dr.}Fred Eichmiller a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Dr. Eichmiller's group pioneered early work on calcium phosphate and sold its patents to Enamelon.

"With toothpaste, you're lucky to get 50 seconds of contact time. You hope there's enough left in the teeth and saliva so it will work. Whereas in chewing gum, you can get up to 15 minutes of contact time."

Cavities are caused by bacteria, which feed on sugar in the mouth and create acid and plaque that unduly accelerate a natural breakdown of the teeth called demineralization.

Saliva has calcium phosphate that helps remineralize the teeth, so adding more of that chemical seems to accelerate the process, said Dr. Eichmiller. In addition, chewing gum stimulates more saliva.

In tests on rats completed this year at the University of Connecticut, an Enamelon formulation eliminated 80 percent of early cavities called lesions while fluoride toothpaste eliminated none, said Mr. Fox, 42, a former dentistry professor who still keeps a part-time practice.

Scientists have tried to figure out for 40 years how to use calcium phosphate to rebuild teeth and Enamelon's technique appears to be the first to work, said {Dr.}Ernest Newbrun, a professor emeritus at the University of California-San Francisco, who adds a major proviso.

"I obviously would be very cautious until I start seeing clinical data (on people), but I understand the rationale and it makes sense to me," Dr. Newbrun said.

Xylitol's popularity in Europe is based on research done in Finland during the 1980s.

It seems to create a hostile environment for bacteria, meaning there is potentially less acid, less plaque and fewer cavities, said Dr. Irwin Mandel, a professor emeritus at Columbia University in New York.

A three-year study funded by Leaf and done by the University of Michigan was completed late last year. It looked at 1,227 children in the central American nation of Belize and showed those who chewed XyliFresh five times a day got half the cavities of whose who chewed sugarless gum with the artificial sweetener sorbitol.

But major question marks still hang over both products.

Enamelon's ability to introduce its gum is based largely on the success of its toothpaste - which is in itself a long shot.

Enamelon plans to test market the toothpaste early next year, then introduce it nationally in 1998.

But, because it has yet to complete research on people, Enamelon won't be able to make any grand new claims in its advertising. Fox hopes that early sales will pay to finish the studies - but the company may have to hold on for two to three years until these studies are done.

During that time, the company hopes to convince a big-name confectionery company to sign on as a partner to market the gum.

Breaking into the $1.7 billion U.S. toothpaste market means going up against giants like Procter & Gamble, maker of Crest, and Colgate-Palmolive. And, Enamelon plans to charge a premium price - about $3.50 a tube compared with about $2 for regular fluoride toothpaste.

The company has one thing going for it. Some consumers seem quite willing to switch toothpastes. Witness the success in recent years of new brands like Arm & Hammer baking soda and Rembrandt whitening toothpaste.

Xylitol also has its problems. Some scientists believe the amount needed to reduce cavities is too high for placement in chewing gum. Others worry that high doses can upset some stomachs.

Last week, a scientific subcommittee that is advising the Food and Drug Administration on dental products said there isn't enough data to prove its effectiveness.

A further complication: Leaf's North American business is about to be taken over by Hershey Foods, whose commitment to the product is uncertain.

Selling a cavity-fighting gum might seem like a snap, but advertising consultants disagree on whether parents will go along.

"The last thing a mother wants is to encourage a kid to eat candy or gum, or have their kid think candy or gum is good for them," said Gary Stibel of New England Consulting in Westport, Conn.

Ellen Sackoff, president of The Discovery Group in New York, is more optimistic. "Kids can turn around to the parent and say `It's good for me - or at least it's not bad.' But it can't be based on that alone. It's got to be fun."

{End adv for Thursday, Dec. 26

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AP-CS-12-24-96 1024EST