AIT coconut oil research causes stir

Medical journals and news sites across the world have been abuzz this week with news of a major scientific discovery at Athlone Institute of Technology, which could help in the fight against tooth decay.

Researchers at AIT found that digested coconut oil is able to attack the bacteria that cause tooth decay, and is a natural antibiotic that could be incorporated into commercial dental care products.

The AIT team tested the antibacterial action of coconut oil in its natural state and coconut oil that had been treated with enzymes, in a process similar to digestion. They found that enzyme-modified coconut oil strongly inhibited the growth of most strains of Streptococcus bacteria including Streptococcus mutans – an acid-producing bacterium that is a major cause of tooth decay.

The researchers in AIT’s Bioscience Research Institute, led by Dr Damien Brady, presented their work at the Society for General Microbiology’s autumn conference at the University of Warwick on Monday.

Further work will examine which other strains of harmful bacteria and yeasts coconut oil is active against. Additional testing by the group at AIT found that enzyme-modified coconut oil was also harmful to the yeast Candida albicans that can cause thrush.

The researchers suggest that enzyme-modified coconut oil has potential as a marketable antimicrobial which could be of particular interest to the oral healthcare industry.

Dr Brady said: “Dental caries is a commonly overlooked health problem affecting 60-90 per cent of children and the majority of adults in industrialised countries. Incorporating enzyme-modified coconut oil into dental hygiene products would be an attractive alternative to chemical additives, particularly as it works at relatively low concentrations. Also, with increasing antibiotic resistance, it is important that we turn our attention to new ways to combat microbial infection.”

The work also contributes to our understanding of antibacterial activity in the human gut.

“Our data suggests that products of human digestion show antimicrobial activity. This could have implications for how bacteria colonise the cells lining the digestive tract and for overall gut health,” added Dr Brady.

“We are currently researching coconut oil and other enzyme-modified foodstuffs to identify how they interfere with the way bacteria cause illness and disease,” he said.

The research was supported by the AIT President’s Research Seed Fund, which has invested €750,000 in postgraduate research work since 2010.

The MSc project is being carried out by Patricia Hughes, supervised by Dr Brady and Professor Neil Rowan at AIT. Ms Hughes graduated with a degree in veterinary nursing in 2009 from Athlone Institute of Technology.

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