Plaque. Bacteria. Food residue. Our teeth come in contact with a host of cavity-causing materials throughout the day. For healthy teeth that are cleaned properly, most of these intruders are no big deal, but for teeth that are already weakened due to improper care, damage or enamel defects, these oral intruders can really take their toll. But now, a new dental material under development at the University of Pennsylvania may help take some of the power away from those nasty outsiders - and it could change the future of oral health.

The material, a resin embedded with an antimicrobial compound called imidazolium, has been found to not only kill the oral bacteria s. mutans, but also to resist biofilm, otherwise known as plaque.

"S. mutans bacteria is the bacteria most commonly responsible for creating cavities," says Dr. Stephen Hill, a dentist based in Allen, Texas. "So, to have a filling that actually fights s. mutans, that can only improve the durability of your fillings."

That’s because, according to Hill, fillings weaken the teeth, making them more vulnerable to fractures and even repeat cavities.

"Even the most meticulous filling will never be part of your tooth," says Hill. "There will be a seam, and sometimes the bacteria can get under that seam and into the tooth. So, if your filling can kill that bacteria off, that’s great news for the rest of the tooth."

As for the biofilm, designers of the new composite say removing plaque from the filling could be as easy as washing it away with a glass of water.

"Obviously the rest of your teeth still need to be brushed, but the good news is that plaque won’t be sitting on a vulnerable tooth all day until you can brush again," says Hill. "The new composite won’t do much for the rest of your mouth, but it’s really brilliantly designed to protect a delicate area that is at a much higher risk of developing decay and infection."

While the new material is not yet available for use in dental practices, Hill hopes it will become available soon.

"Fillings weren’t meant to last forever, but this could really extend the life of most fillings, and it should make the patient’s quality of life a lot better during the life of the filling, too," he says.