20 January 2006

The Answer to Dry Mouth

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A microchip placed in the mouth can improve the life of people that suffer from Xerostomia, a condition that affects saliva production in the mouth

A microchip placed in the mouth can improve the life of people that suffer from Xerostomia, a condition that affects saliva production in the mouth. SALIWELL – a joint European and Israeli research team has developed two electronic devices that relieve symptoms of Xerostomia and boost saliva production in patients. The cheap, effective remedy has been the subject of extensive tests on patients in Berlin, Madrid, Naples and Jerusalem.

10% of the Western population suffers from Xerostomia, a condition involving a deficiency in the production of saliva. The consequences are dramatic – an increase in caries and a dry mouth and tongue. In addition, sufferers are constantly thirsty and have difficulty swallowing, speaking and even sleeping.

Following treatment for throat cancer, Michel, an Israeli living in Jerusalem, experienced these problems for himself. The radiation therapy he had undergone damaged the nerve connecting the brain with the salivary glands and as a result, his salivary glands stopped producing saliva.

The only way of combating the constant oral dryness and caries was for him to drink a lot of water. The side effect of this was regular trips to the toilet. Life became even more uncomfortable at night, when he would be forced to make up to three visits to the toilet. Michel’s life has since changed following his testing of a new device which was financially supported by the European Union and devised by European and Israeli research teams called SALIWELL.

The new device is called GenNarino, and consists of an appliance that can be placed in the mouth and easily removed. The device electronically stimulates the production of saliva. Dr Wolff, a dentist and project manager at SALIWELL is able to summarise the way the device works in a simple way. “The electrodes allow the nerve to tell the brain that there is food in the mouth even when it is empty. That is the role of the electrodes. And this is the nerve we want to excite with our device. Therefore we place it or the electrodes close to this nerve.”

Michel only needs to have the appliance in his mouth a couple of times a day for a few minutes and his saliva levels return to normal. The appliance looks like a standard gum shield and is transparent. It can be easily carried around in a small case that comes with it. Michel wears it at times when he is on his own or when he is driving home from work.

A number of other patients that have tested the device suffer from even more extreme forms of Xerostomia than Michel. For these more extreme cases, the SALIWELL team has developed a permanently placed stimulating device, the SALIWELL Crown, which is attached to a standard dental implant located in the third molar area, close to the relevant nerves.

Both SALIWELL devices are intelligent tools, that have a built-in micro-processor, its own power source, stimulation electrodes and a moisture sensor. The device can operate for up to 12 months before needing a replacement. SALIWELL Crown is easily replaced thanks to a non-invasive operation. In addition, through the use of a remote control, the patient can increase or decrease saliva secretion as and when required.

Before the development of such devices, Xerostomia sufferers only had a treatment based on medication as the remedy. However, this treatment was only successful in 30% of cases, was expensive and had an effect limited in time. Aside from this, a number of the side effects were difficult for patients to cope with. As Michel says: “The problem with the pill based medication was that they not only stimulated salivary glands, but all other glands as well, making me feel very sweaty and uneasy.”

SALIWELL’s invention is of great importance. Statistics show that there are at least 80 million sufferers in the Western world alone. It is likely that their number will increase as life expectancy grows. Xerostomia can be caused by 400 different types of medication that are used to treat a range of diseases whilst radiation therapy for cancers is also a large cause.

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