One of the more compelling aspects of scientific research is the unexpected avenues down which it can lead. The exploratory nature of science - testing hypothesis - means there is always the potential for unexpected results and happy accidents. In this way, serendipity has led to some of science’s more notable discoveries.
Any list of accidental scientific breakthroughs must surely be headed by Alexander Fleming’s fortuitous discovery of penicillin in 1928. Had Fleming bothered to tidy away his staphylococcus bacteria samples before leaving for a holiday, we might still be ignorant of the bacteria-fighting properties of the penicillium fungus that grew in his absence. It is a rather disconcerting fact that human health owes a huge debt not so much to Fleming’s genius, but to his slovenly attitude towards his workstation.
Bioactive glass and NovaMin
One of the key technologies in our Sensodyne Repair & Protect toothpaste was also the beneficiary of scientific happenstance. The NovaMin technology - a bioactive glass - was patented in 2002, but its origins go back a lot further, to a chance meeting in 1967 between a scientist from the University of Florida and a US army colonel.
At the time, Professor Larry Hench was researching the resistant properties of glass to nuclear radiation. In August 1967, he shared a bus journey to an army materials conference in New York with a US army colonel who had just returned from Vietnam.
During their conversation Colonel Klinker – who according to Hench was not particularly interested in the effects of radiation on glass – posed a question which Hench later said changed his life. Having seen hundreds of limbs amputated every week in Vietnam because the patients’ bodies rejected the metals and plastics used to mend their bones, the Colonel asked the following question:
If you can make a material that will survive exposure to high-energy radiation, can you make a material that will survive exposure to the human body?
Two years later, Hench achieved exactly that. He created a material that in effect could form a ‘living bond’ with bone, and bioactive glass was born. Trademarked as Bioglass, it has been successfully used in medicine ever since to mend bones and accelerate bone growth.
Just add water
The major breakthrough as far as oral health is concerned came in 1996 when two dentists - Drs Len Litkowski and Gary Hack - whose main area of study was sensitive teeth, and researcher David Greenspan adapted the technology for oral care. Bioglass is a compound formed of calcium, sodium, silica and phosphorus. On their own, these elements are of little use in oral health. However, in the presence of saliva and water, a calcium phosphate layer forms and crystallises to form hydroxylapatite, which is similar both chemically and structurally to the minerals in teeth.
Hack, Litkowski and Greenspan found that particles of this hydroxylapatite could fill the tiny holes in teeth that allowed sensations like sweet, hot or cold to reach nerves and cause pain. So from research into the bone regenerative properties of Bioglass, Litkowski and Greenspan, on teaming up with Hack, had struck upon a treatment for sensitive teeth, which they called NovaMin.
In 2011, after our Consumer Healthcare business acquired Hack, Litowski and Greenspan’s NovaMin company, we announced the launch of Sensodyne Repair and Protect, the first everyday fluoride based toothpaste containing NovaMin technology that can repair sensitive teeth. Used twice daily, it can form a protective layer and stop tooth sensitivity in just two weeks.
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