Tooth Tattoo

Small Sensor May Help Dentists Assess Dental and Overall Health.

As a dentist in Orange, Connecticut, one of the things I enjoy most is watching and following all the exciting research developments in the dental field. It is amazing the creativity and ingenuity that goes in to developing these innovations.  The research spans all areas, from better local anesthetic delivery systems, stronger crowns, new surgical techniques, more esthetic restorative materials, etc.  Some products are still many years away from market release.  Other dental innovations are “cool” but will never be feasible as commercial products.  Some products are ready to be released and placed into the hands of dentists today!

To stay abreast of these dental developments, I subscribe to different email lists and participate in various online forums about dentistry.  I do this so that I can incorporate newer technologies into my daily practice.  I came across the following article just a couple of days ago. The article describes a device that can attach to a tooth and provide information about the types of bacteria present in the mouth.

Tooth Tatoo Diagram

Tooth Tatoo – The Sensor (A) attached to the tooth (B) binds with bacteria (D) and sends radio signals (C). Image courtesy of Manu Manoor/Nature Communications.

Researchers at Tufts University have developed this technology.  In the prototype, there is a sensor with a width less than a piece of paper that attaches to a tooth.  Outside the mouth there is a receiver that continuously “pings” the sensor providing it with power as well as allowing the sensor to send data back to the receiver.  The sensor will send back different types of data based upon the presence or lack of bacteria as well as the types of bacteria that are adhering to the sensor.

Strep Mutuans, the cocci bacteria found on teeth that cause cavities or dental decay

Strep Mutans – the bacteria responsible for cavities

Dental caries (also known as dental decay or dental cavities) are caused by specific bacteria, aided or hindered by certain dietary habits.  Periodontal disease (which includes periodontitis and gingivitis) is caused by specific bacteria as well and is affected by numerous other factors (smoking, certain systemic diseases, etc).  The presence/absence as well as the amount of these different types of bacteria are directly linked to the current disease process as well as the future possibility of disease.  So a device such as this would be beneficial in diagnosing both current and future cases of cavities and periodontal disease.

Dr. Gerard Kugel from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine mentions in the article examples of how this technology could be used in an everyday dental practice.  If a patient is experiencing a spike in bacterial loads associated with dental caries, the patient could be given a prescription for high strength fluoride and be instructed to chew xylitol gum multiple times throughout the day.  Or if the sensor is detecting a surge in one of the 3 main bacterial species associated with periodontitis, the patient could be notified and be recommended to have a cleaning soon or to start on a mouth rinse containing chlorhexidine.

Beyond assessing a patient for dental caries or periodontal disease, I see many other applications of this future tool.  There are many biological markers in saliva that could be monitored and tracked. For example, proteins from the HIV virus can be found in saliva.  In addition, biological markers associated with Type II Diabetes, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, Sjogren’s Syndrome, and many other diseases can be found in saliva.  A great summary of the different markers can be found here.

This development is still many years away from being commercially available and viable. However, there are many possibilities beyond what has been described in this blog post.  But perhaps the greatest finding with this research is the further solidification that the mouth is a gateway to the body and that dentists and physicians should work together closely to manage their patients’ health.

Disclosure: I completed my undergraduate studies at Tufts University and I routinely take continuing education classes at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. But I have no connection with this product or the research in practice in Orange, CT.