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A tooth whitener made from mushrooms

Developed through an interdisciplinary project at universities in the state of São Paulo, the new product has fewer adverse effects

The new formulation was developed from an extract from brown shimeji mushrooms

Pedro Amatuzzi / Inova Unicamp

A type of mushroom popular in Brazil and widely used in Asian cuisine could soon become an alternative for one of the most common dental procedures performed in the country, tooth whitening. The invention, created by an interdisciplinary group of researchers from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), is a substance made from an extract taken from the brown shimeji mushroom that can remove stains from teeth. According to its inventors, the product causes less damage to tooth enamel than conventional whitening products and doesn’t cause hypersensitivity, a common side effect after applying whiteners now available on the market.

In order to accelerate development of a commercial version of the new whitener, the startup firm WeBee, a spin-off of UNICAMP, signed an agreement with the two universities licensing the formula’s patent application, filed with the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI). With funds from FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Businesses (PIPE) program, WeBee intends to test the extract in two formulations: as a gel—applied in dental molds—and as a mouthwash. “With everything going well, we anticipate that the first commercial version will be ready in about 20 months,” says biotechnologist Dayse Alexia, the startup’s founder.

The entrepreneur enumerates the main advantages of the invention, which is formulated from a base of the fungus and water: “In addition to its natural composition, the extract causes fewer side effects than traditional whiteners, which can cause pain, hypersensitivity, gum inflammation, gastric sensitivity, pH changes, and demineralization of the tooth structure.”

Dentist Débora Alves Nunes Leite Lima, from UNICAMP’s Piracicaba School of Dentistry (FOP), explains that the most common bleaching treatments, which use hydrogen peroxide and carbamide, are already capable of removing pigments without compromising the tooth structure. However, these substances can cause microscopic changes in the enamel, such as tooth demineralization. “The shimeji whitening agent also benefits patients who are allergic or sensitive to conventional formulations,” says Lima, who was part of the team responsible for the new product.

Creating a cosmetic dentistry application for edible fungi was the project of a team of researchers from three UNICAMP units: FOP, the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences (FCF), and the School of Food Engineering (FEA), with the Graduate Program in Translational Medicine at the São Paulo School of Medicine (EPM-UNIFESP). The inventors and the WeBee startup were recognized in May by UNICAMP with the Prêmio Inventores, which emphasizes intellectual property licensing agreements.

“The research originated from the dissertation of Maria Cibelle Pauli, one of my PhD students at UNIFESP,” says pharmacist Gislaine Ricci Leonardi, currently a professor of cosmetology at FCF-UNICAMP. Motivated by the potential of Pauli’s research, which focused on tooth whitening, Leonardi invited food engineer Juliano Lemos Bicas, from the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at FEA-UNICAMP, to participate in the project.

“Professor Gislaine came to me to investigate tooth whiteners made from food. I then suggested that we study the oxidoreductases, enzymes that we already knew have the property of breaking down pigments,” recalls Bicas. “From there, we tested four types of mushrooms sold in supermarkets: shitake, white and brown shimejis, and button mushrooms, all of which are rich in oxidoreductases enzymes. Of these, the one that presented the best results was the brown shimeji.”

In laboratory tests, the shimeji extract proved to be safe both for in vitro applications and with bovine teeth (this phase of the research was approved by UNICAMP’s Animal Ethics Committee). The next stage of development, still in the planning phase, will test the two different formulations (gel and mouthwash) in humans.

During the studies, the researchers received a pleasant surprise when they began sterilizing the raw material. When exposing the mushroom to high temperatures, the scientists had expected that the process would inhibit the enzymes’ effect. “Instead of inactivating the whitening property, heating increased the extract’s potential. This suggests that the bleaching action may not be triggered exclusively or directly by the enzymes. We still don’t know why,” says Bicas.

One disadvantage of shimeji extract is that it lightens about 25% less than conventional products. “Interestingly, this can be a positive aspect of the formulation, since many times the client prefers a more natural appearance instead of teeth that appear artificially white,” the UNICAMP food engineer observes.

For dentist Amélia Mamede, director of Health Promotion at the Brazilian Dental Association (ABO), who did not participate in the research, the shimeji whitener, which she considers “conservative,” should have benefits for users because it is a sustainable technology. “This type of study and development should be encouraged in all universities so that there are more sustainable technologies supported on the environmental, economic, and social sustainability tripod.”

The new cosmetic application for brown shimeji could also result in gains for fungus producers, who are usually small entrepreneurs. Because the stalk and other disposable parts of the fungus are as effective at bleaching as the parts sold in supermarkets—primarily the tops—growers could increase income while reducing crop waste. “Since we don’t need the edible part to make the bleach, our demand doesn’t compete with the food market,” Bicas points out. “Instead of discarding the stalks, producers could sell them, and receive an extra source of income.”

The creation of spin-offs such as WeBee has been occurring for decades at UNICAMP. This initiative, however, has recently gained momentum due to regulatory changes favorable to micro and small businesses, such as the signing of the Complementary Law Project 146/2019, known as the legal framework for startups and innovative entrepreneurship, in 2021 (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 305), and the approval of the UNICAMP Innovation Policy in 2019.

Ana Frattini, executive director of the UNICAMP Innovation Agency (INOVA), says the agency’s goal is to encourage the creation of at least two spin-offs per year and license 20 new technologies. She explains that the model adopted by the institution encourages the transfer of knowledge generated at the university through the creation of new businesses based on science and technology that have the potential to generate positive social, economic, and environmental impacts.

“By licensing a technology from UNICAMP, entrepreneurs reduce the time, cost, and risk involved in developing innovations,” the executive observes. “This model deploys the concept of the triple helix, in which the university, government, and business interact so that innovation can occur and generate positive impacts on society.”

Tooth whitening product based on industrial waste from mushroom processing (nº 21/04241-9); Grant Mechanism Innovative Research in Small Businesses (PIPE); Principal Investigator Dayse Alexia de Carvalho de Brito (WeBee); Investment R$197,967.96.