Get dry mouth? Scientists invent better ‘saliva substitute’ that could help millions

  • A dry mouth is a common condition that affects up to 10 million people in the UK
  • But the new water-based lubricant is allegedly up to five times more effective  

Scientists have invented a ‘saliva substitute’ that could bring hope for hundreds of thousands of people suffering from dry mouth.

A dry mouth, or xerostomia, is a common condition that affects up to 10million people in the UK.

It is most prevalent among older people and those who have had cancer treatment or need to take a mix of medicines, and in severe cases can result in discomfort swallowing, malnutrition and dental problems.

There are certain products available to help deal with the issue, such as gels that go onto the tongue.

But a new water-based lubricant, designed by a team at the University of Leeds, is allegedly up to five times more effective in laboratory tests.

The substance, known as a microgel, has been described as comparable to natural saliva in the way it hydrates the mouth and acts as a lubricant when food is chewed.

Pictured, a graphical representation of the structure of the new water based lubricants. The dairy version is on the left – the vegan version on the right. It shows the proteins – seen as a dark blue and dark green mesh-like structures of the hydrated microgel, partially coated by a hydrogel made by a polysaccharide

The team used lactoferrin, a protein found in milk, as part of their design.

Under a powerful microscope the molecules in the gel appear as a sponge which binds onto the surface of the mouth.

Surrounding the gel is another substance which helps to trap water, keeping the mouth feeling hydrated for longer.

The team tested it against eight currently available products in a laboratory using an artificial tongue-like surface, and discovered their new lubricant stayed on the tongue for much longer.

Professor Anwesha Sarkar, who has led the development of the saliva substitute, said: ‘Our laboratory benchmarking reveals that this substance will have a longer-lasting effect.

‘The problem with many of the existing commercial products is they are only effective for short periods because they do not bind to the surface of the mouth, with people having to frequently reapply the substance, sometimes while they are talking or as they eat. That affects people’s quality of life.’

Although testing of the new product has involved just laboratory analysis, the scientific team believe the results will be replicated in human trials.

The authors of the study are looking to translate the lubricant technology into commercially available products, to improve the quality of life of people who experience debilitating dry mouth conditions.

Their findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.