Well into the 1800s, if you had toothache, you went to a barber’s shop. Here, without the comfort of sterilization or pain relief, an unqualified barber would pull the painful tooth from your mouth—with varying degrees of success. If you could afford it, you might buy a set of crude wooden dentures made from teeth extracted from the dead. Thankfully, dentistry has come a long way since then. Its recognition as a medical profession; the development of anesthetics, drills, and specialist tools; and massive leaps in technology and knowledge have helped to make modern dentistry an advanced science. Today, X-rays, lasers, and computers are on the front lines of oral health; yet, we still strive for new and better ways to keep smiles on our faces.
Taking care of our teeth is about more than avoiding cavities and dentures. Oral health has an impact on the whole body. Research has proven that oral infections can contribute to diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney failure, stroke, and other health problems. There is even evidence that missing teeth may affect balance and coordination. Unfortunately, good oral hygiene isn’t always understood and isn’t always possible. This is especially true in the developing world where access to dentistry is limited, such as Uganda, a nation of 44 million with only about 300 dentists. Technical advances, however, are improving global access to essential treatments such as replacing lost teeth. MegaGen Implant, pioneers in dental technology, is partnering in this effort by developing treatments that are simpler, smarter, faster, and cheaper. These treatments are designed to bring the maximum benefit to the greatest number of people in the places that need it most.
One such treatment uses three-dimensional (3D) printing to replace lost teeth. Today a 3D printer costs as little as $500, is no bigger than a suitcase, and is just as portable. The affordability and accessibility of 3D printing empowers dentists to rebuild smiles in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world.
Here’s how it works. First, the dentist uses a handheld Intraoral Scanner, an instrument resembling a wand, to map the patient’s mouth. Taking 3,000 images a second, every bump and groove is digitally recorded in a file, which is uploaded to a team of specialists at MegaGen. The team uses the digital images to design a new set of specially tailored teeth, sending the dentist plans formatted for the 3D printer. The printer uses a high-powered laser to solidify liquid resin into a perfect tooth, which is then anchored into the patient’s jaw using a tiny metal implant screw specially designed to bond with the bone. Precise, strong, sterile, and permanent, the process takes just minutes.
The technology behind this treatment is made possible through the ground-breaking work of MegaGen Implant. In its state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Daegu, South Korea, MegaGen designs and produces some of the most advanced bionic teeth in the world, as well as the tiny screws used to affix new teeth to the jaw. The teeth are meticulously machine milled from medical grade titanium, producing an incredibly strong and detailed implant. To ensure that the new teeth bond quickly and completely with the bone, MegaGen has developed a unique process. Each screw is sandblasted, producing an intricately etched texture that helps strengthen the connection to the bone for an exceptionally firm hold. In addition, each tooth is coated with calcium ions, helping boost bone growth and prevent rejection by the body. The MegaGen process improvements have cut treatment time down from six months to a single day. Patients can have an implant procedure in the morning and be chewing an apple by bedtime.
As the speed and simplicity of such bionic implants increase, costs are decreasing—making implants increasingly accessible in the developing world. In areas with more advanced treatment facilities, additional high-tech oral health options are available. For example, a sophisticated scanning device called a CBCT allows dentists to see deep inside the teeth and bone, providing an exceptionally accurate 3D image. Fused with the Intraoral Scanner, dentists have a perfect virtual-view of the mouth, allowing them to drill the guide holes for implants with microscopic precision. Similarly, MegaGen is making even stronger teeth, computer-crafted from discs of super-hard composite using a state-of-the-art milling machine. Remarkably, it can take just four hours to manufacture and place twelve new bionic teeth.
Research continues to push the boundaries of dentistry in exciting new directions. Powerful artificial intelligence (AI) could soon check thousands of patients every second: detecting cavities, suggesting treatments, and even preventing potential problems before they develop. In China, a fully-automated robotic arm is using 3D scans to replace teeth, and a form of bionic glove is being developed to combine the accuracy of robotics with the empathy of humans. Through the science of gene editing, it soon may be possible to trigger our genes to grow better teeth and to replace any teeth we lose, while infrared lasers could stimulate dental stem cells to bring a dead tooth back to life. And, while 3D printers can build artificial teeth, the next step is for a bioprinter to combine artificial gel with living human stem cells to reconstruct whole sections of jaw complete with real teeth.
Dentistry has come a long way in a relatively short time. Treatments that seemed impossible, exclusive, or expensive a decade ago are fast becoming routine, bringing new hope to the millions who suffer with painful or disfiguring tooth and gum issues. Already, these advances are making a huge difference in the lives of ordinary people, enabling them to eat what they want, and to speak, smile, and laugh with confidence. These treatments are truly transformational. Much more than basic oral health, today’s dentistry is focused on giving everyone a reason and the ability to smile.