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Making the invisible, visible -  to better understand tooth sensitivity

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13 October 2021

For the past two and a half years, our oral healthcare research team have been securing ‘beam time’ at the Grenoble-based synchrotron - European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF). But what is a synchrotron and ‘beam time’? And how has this helped enhance our understanding of how our products work to help protect against tooth hypersensitivity? 

A man eating something unhealthy

Tooth hypersensitivity is a common and often underdiagnosed condition. A short, sharp pain arising from exposed dentine (hard dense bony tissue beneath the tooth enamel) in response to a stimulus (cold drink, hot food etc). Dentine contains many tiny holes which run straight to the centre of your tooth where your nerves are. Upon eating or drinking something cold, hot, sweet or sour, a stimulus can travel through the holes and stimulate a nerve, resulting in the short, sharp sensation of tooth sensitivity pain.

Our oral healthcare team at GSK Consumer Healthcare is continuing to develop our understanding of tooth sensitivity using technologies such as the synchrotron - a circular particle accelerator - so we can ensure our products are delivering better everyday health for people all over the world. 

But what is a synchrotron? 

Picture of a building
The storage ring of the European Light Source (ESRF) in Grenoble (Credit: P.Ginter/ESRF)

A synchrotron works by accelerating charged particles (electrons) through sequences of magnets – as the electrons move around the ring, they emit x-rays that are 10 billion times brighter than the sun! The electrons being whizzed round move at such a pace, it’s almost the speed of light. These x-rays allow researchers to collect data substantially faster at a much more detailed level than they can elsewhere. 

There are approximately 70 of these facilities around the globe, with varying uses. They’ve been used to monitor the air at Ground Zero following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, for studying the degradation of the Dead Sea scrolls, and for studying complex molecular structures – indeed the structures of many proteins, viruses and vaccines were successfully characterised using synchrotron light.   

Inside a factory
A surface area of 8 football pitches. European Light Source (ESRF), Grenoble, France.
Inside a factory
Gigantic machines, for the minutest details. European Light Source (ESRF), Grenoble, France.

Beam time at the beamline  

At the facility, scientists are given allotted timeslots - often just 48 hours - to carry out their experiments – called ‘beam time’.  

During the experiments, the beams are so strong, scientists cannot be in the same room while the beam is being fired at the sample. The beauty of using a machine like ESRF is because it means we can look at large areas of an object, such as a tooth, in extreme detail - this makes the information we obtain more representative of the whole object.  

For our oral healthcare research team, their beamtime was focused on discovering just how our new toothpaste product was interacting with the dentine tubules - small, hollow microscopic channels that travel from the inside of the tooth, where the pulp is, out through the dentine, ending right beneath the enamel. The x-rays from the synchrotron enabled the team to see this – at far greater detail than they have ever seen before.  

For the first time, we’ve been able to look deep inside teeth, to see how toothpaste formulations affect dentine occlusion over time. The research has revolutionised the way we look at brushed teeth and there’s much more to come but this exciting technique will open new doors for optimising toothpastes and engineering of new formulations for the future.

Christabel Fowler, Innovation Research Lead, Oral Health 

We’re proud to be using cutting-edge techniques like this to continually enhance our understanding of tooth hypersensitivity so we can continue to deliver the best possible solutions to the health challenges our consumers are facing every day. 

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