MU researchers' plasma brush aims to ease pain at the dentist

Friday, January 6, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — MU engineers and researchers at a Columbia-based medical device company are a step closer to developing a "plasma brush" that could take some of the pain, noise and expense out of getting a filling.

Its developers say the plasma brush painlessly disinfects and cleans a cavity before filling a tooth in less than 30 seconds, according to a news release from the MU News Bureau. It uses a "cool flame" that strengthens the bond for a longer-lasting filling, which reduces the chance of losing a tooth as the result of a filling being repeatedly replaced.

The research team hopes the plasma brush will make getting a filling a more comfortable experience.

Although the plasma brush procedure is painless and relatively quiet, dentists may still need to use a drill to assist in the filling process, said Meng Chen, chief scientist at Nanova Inc., which is helping to develop the brush and owns with MU a co-patent for the invention.

Hao Li, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the MU College of Engineering, said that 200 million fillings cost Americans an estimated $50 billion a year, and he estimates that replacement fillings make up 75 percent of a dentist's work, according to the release.

The plasma brush developers hope their invention will reduce those costs. A tooth can only support two or three fillings before it must be pulled, Li said.

"Our studies indicate that fillings are 60 percent stronger with the plasma brush, which would increase the filling lifespan," Li said. "This would be a big benefit to the patient, as well as dentists and insurance companies."

Before the brush can be used in dentist offices, it will be sent to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis for human clinical trials. The six-month animal studies began in September, Chen said. Recruitment of about 100 adult patients is scheduled to begin in March for the human trials, and those are expected to be finished in April 2013.

"So far every thing is going well in Memphis," Chen said in an email. "The animal study is expected to support that the plasma brush will not generate a side effect on healthy gum tissue."

Yong Wang, a professor in the department of oral biology at the University of Kansas City School of Dentistry, said it could be a few years before the patients will see the device in dentist's offices.

"It may take time for the dentists to learn this technology, and I don't think it will happen very soon," Wang said. "The best idea may be to lend this brush to a dental school and ask for a student to try it, get a feeling for it and hands-on experience for future practice."

Researchers said they hoped the product would be available to dentists as early as the end of 2013. 

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