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By Emma Yasinski

In 2009, a futuristic device reminiscent of a tiny lightsaber made headlines based on a study suggesting it could break up biofilms—colonies of bacteria that clump together, forming films that often withstand traditional antibiotic treatments—that grow on teeth and cause caries and periodontal disease.

Plasma, the fourth state of matter, is similar to gas but with incredibly high energy. While some plasma, such as that found in stars, is scorching hot, scientists have developed nonthermal plasma torches, which harness the energy of plasma but keep it under 104 degrees Fahrenheit, thus making it potentially safe to use on human tissue. The tiny plasma probe described in the 2009 study was designed to operate at room temperature, and is even safe to touch.

“We believe we’re the first team to apply plasma for biofilm disinfection in root canals,” study author Chunqi Jiang, a research assistant professor in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering-Electrophysics, told the University of Southern California, emphasizing that the device would next need to be tested in clinical trials.

 

The device can be used for three main varieties of dental applications: restoration, disinfection, and whitening.

 

Researcher
A 2009 photo of researcher Chunqi Jiang

It made headlines again in 2011 when a dentist was filmed using the device on himself. Shortly after, a clinical trial funded by Nanova began to test a “plasma brush” for use in dental restoration and caries. The trial enrolled 102 participants from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s dental clinics. It is listed as “completed,” though its results are not reported on clinicaltrials.gov.

In 2017, Nanova debuted its “plasma brush” at the International Dental Show (IDS). Today, the company sells the device, but its website notes that it is still pending FDA approval. The trial completed in 2014 is the device’s only registered clinical trial. However, the site lists studies that provide evidence that the device can be used for three main varieties of dental applications: restoration, disinfection, and whitening.

In 2013, dermatologists in Europe began using plasma to support wound healing. Since then, two literature reviews, published in 2014 and 2017, have described enthusiasm in both dentistry and medicine for using nonthermal plasma torches for the three applications listed on Nanova’s website.

However, according to a 2019 review on plasma applications in medicine and dentistry, there has been more momentum in medicine than in dentistry. Researchers have made progress testing the devices in wound healing and even cancer, but in dentistry, “so far only one trial on dental restoration and caries prevention using the miniature atmospheric cold plasma brush (m-ACPB) has been completed (NCT01529606).”

Altogether, evidence for plasma-assisted wound decontamination and plasma-assisted wound healing based on (R)CTs [randomized controlled trials] is improving, although structured reviews are still missing,” the authors wrote.  

 

Author: Contributing writer Emma Yasinski received her Master of Science (MS) in science and medical journalism from Boston University. Her articles have also appeared at TheAtlantic.com, Kaiser Health News, NPR Shots, and Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News.

Also by Emma Yasinski:

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