The GMO tooth microbe that is supposed to prevent cavities

AI SaaS

It's a tooth

About seven years ago, Aaron Silverbook and his then-girlfriend, a biologist, were perusing old scientific literature online. “A romantic evening,” joked Silverbook. That night, he came across a study from 2000 that surprised him. Scientists had genetically engineered an oral bacterium that they said could possibly prevent tooth decay: “I read it and sort of boggled at it and said, ‘Wow, this is a cavity vaccine. Why don’t we have this?’”

So, Silverbook tracked down the primary author, Jeffrey Hillman, a now-retired oral biologist formerly at the University of Florida, to see if he could pick up the torch.

In 2023, Silverbook founded Lantern Bioworks, which made a deal with Oragenics, the company Hillman co-founded and that owned the technology, for the materials. Lantern Bioworks then launched the genetically engineered bacteria under the name Lumina Probiotic. “I didn’t expect it to happen in my lifetime,” said Hillman.

As recently as last month, a website for the product included language about cavity prevention. And a previously available press kit stated that “a one-time brushing with this genetically modified bacteria could indefinitely prevent dental cavities.” By the time Lumina became available for pre-orders last week, however, that wording and the press kit had been removed. Silverbook—who does not have a background in dentistry or microbiology—told Undark that his lawyer advised the change in wording on the website, as Lantern Bioworks is bringing the product to market as a cosmetic, meaning it can’t make health claims about Lumina. Cosmetics don’t need to go through the same rigorous trials a drug would. “If anything I said sounded like a medical claim,” Silverbook told Undark in an interview earlier this year, “it wasn’t.”

The product can be applied to teeth as a one-time application either at home or by a dentist. Additional applications can “expedite inoculation,” Silverbook wrote in a follow-up email. He said the company anticipates Lumina will ship by mid-June.

Some people have already received it. Silverbook said he introduced Lumina into his own mouth in October of 2023, and that Lantern Bioworks has also provided it to about 60 people, including attendees of Vitalia, a biotechnology conference held in Honduras earlier this year. At the conference, Lumina was offered for $20,000 per treatment, though the pre-order price has been reduced to $250 before taxes and shipping fees. (Silverbook would not comment on how many people went for Lumina at the conference.)

Experts, though, have safety and ethical concerns: Despite earlier efforts by Oragenics, the treatment has never successfully moved through human clinical trials. “Without human trials, you really can’t determine whether it’s safe or efficacious,” said Jennifer Kuzma, a professor and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University. In fact, it’s possible it could do the opposite of its original intention: She noted that subtle changes in the oral microbiome might lead to more cavities or other problems.

“I read it and sort of boggled at it and said, ‘Wow, this is a cavity vaccine. Why don’t we have this?’”

There’s also no data about whether it could spread between people, which brings up questions of informed consent. If someone doesn’t want to risk taking the untested bacteria, but kisses or shares spoons with someone who got the product, would it be transmitted? No one is quite sure.

Although Lantern Bioworks is bringing Lumina to market as a cosmetic product, precisely how it should be categorized isn’t entirely obvious, Kuzma points out: “The regulatory system isn’t 100 percent clear on this.”

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