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Making dental plaque glow in the dark

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Laura S. Marshall,

Getting children to brush their teeth can be a twice-daily battle: Parents direct their youngsters to brush but have a tough time making sure that it’s being done properly – or at all. But the Inspektor TC could put an end to that.

Designed for at-home use, the Inspektor TC consists of a wand with a blue LED source at the tip. When the blue light is beamed around the mouth and viewed through glasses with yellow filters attached, dental plaque shows up as bright red, thanks to fluorescent porphyrins that occur naturally in plaque bacteria.

SNDental_SS36075.jpg“My children use it regularly,” said Susan Higham, oral biology professor in the school of dental sciences at the University of Liverpool. “I find it very good when they have told me that they have cleaned their teeth, when I suspect they haven’t at all or not very well. No longer do they say, ‘Oh, Mum, you are just saying you can tell that I haven’t cleaned my teeth.’

“Now they can see for themselves all the red patches of plaque. These images are very powerful and motivational for better oral hygiene practices.”

And it’s not just for kids. For adults who view the dentist’s curved tartar scraper as an instrument of torture or who dream up elaborate excuses to avoid tooth cleaning appointments, the Inspektor TC could help. By using the device daily and taking immediate steps to brush any missed spots, users could stop plaque from hardening into tartar and causing tooth decay or periodontal diseases.

“Dental plaque is comprised of multilayers of microorganisms, which, if left undisturbed, can develop into a complex community capable of producing acids from fermentable carbohydrates from the foods and drinks consumed,” Higham said. “The acid conditions can lead to the demineralization of the tooth, which may in time lead to cavities developing, which will require dental treatment. Plaque allowed to build up under the gum and around the gums causes inflammation and can lead to gingivitis and periodontal disease.”

She added that the system could be of particular use to people who already have dental conditions such as gingivitis, periodontal disease or xerostomia – where lack of saliva leaves the teeth vulnerable to caries, which develops rapidly if plaque is not removed – or to disabled people who have difficulty with manual dexterity.

Other methods

There are other ways to check up on plaque, Higham noted, but the other methods rely on dyes or disclosing agents, which create stains. “They all have the disadvantage that not only do they stain the plaque, but they also stain the tongue, lips, oral mucosa, et cetera,” she said. “People understandably do not like walking around with a mouth stained blue. They therefore have limited use because of the inconvenience, impracticalities and time taken to remove the staining. They would not be used for routine home use.”

But the biggest advantage of the Inspektor TC over existing methods is that it reveals the bacteria inside the plaque. “The TC discloses only those locations where plaque has accumulated long enough to allow the development of mature bacteria, which comprises anaerobes and aerobes, allowing the focus to be directed towards the locations that do pose a threat to oral health,” Higham said.

She and her team have been developing the tool with the Netherlands-based Inspektor Research Systems BV and have been conducting clinical trials to determine best practice for the use of quantitative light-induced fluorescence technology. They received a commendation at the 2008 Medical Futures Innovation Awards for their work.

Higham could not give an exact release date but said they hope to have the product on the commercial market within the next 12 months. “I expect the cost will be similar to an electric toothbrush,” she said, adding that a professional-use version with more features might someday be developed.

“It is extremely difficult for the vast majority of people to remove all the plaque from their teeth,” Higham said, “but this can be identified simply and quickly and allow people to carry out further cleaning to remove plaque they missed.”

Feb 2009
Biophotonicsblue LED sourcefluorescent porphyrinsNews & Featuresplaque bacteria

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