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

  • Dry mouth is a common condition that affects up to 10 million people in Britain
  • But the new water-based lubricant is said to be up to five times more effective

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

Dry mouth, or xerostomia, is a common condition that affects up to 10 million people in Britain.

It is most common in the elderly and in people who have had cancer treatment or who need to take a combination of medications, and in severe cases can lead to swallowing problems, malnutrition and dental problems.

There are certain products available to address the problem, such as gels applied to the tongue.

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

The substance, known as a microgel, has been described as similar 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 covered 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 like a sponge adhering to the surface of the mouth.

Surrounding the gel is another substance that helps retain water, keeping the mouth feeling hydrated for longer.

The team tested it in a lab with eight currently available products using an artificial tongue-like surface and found that their new lube stayed on the tongue much longer.

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

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

Although testing of the new product only involved laboratory analyses, the scientific team believes the results will be replicated in human trials.

The study authors aim to translate lubricant technology into commercially available products to improve the quality of life for people who suffer from debilitating dry mouth.

Their findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.