OHSU Chip
OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff

Led by researchers at Oregon Health Science University, scientists have successfully created a “tooth-on-a-chip” system, the first of its kind for dental research.

As reported by the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal, Lab on a Chip, and by OHSU itself, the unique miniature dental device utilizes a thin slice of an actual human molar, layered between transparent rubber slides that are etched with tiny channels through which fluids flow.

The result? The “tooth on a chip” accurately mimics a real tooth with a cavity, allowing researchers to observe it under a microscope as it interacts with materials and bacteria.

“Years from now, dentists could extract a tooth from a patient, load it into this device, observe how a dental filling material interacts with the tooth, and pick a material that’s best for that particular patient.” — Dr. Luiz E. Bertassoni

“Today’s cavity fillings don’t work as well as they should. They last for five, seven years on average, and then they break off,” the paper’s corresponding author, Luiz E. Bertassoni, D.D.S. Ph.D., says (as quoted in a news article written by Franny White, a senior OHSU media relations specialist). Dr. Bertassoni is associate professor of restorative dentistry in the OHSU School of Dentistry and biomedical engineering in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Dr. Bertassoni
Dr. Luiz E. Bertassoni
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“They don’t work because we haven’t been able to figure out what’s happening at the interface of the tooth and the filling,” Dr. Bertassoni added. “This device can help address that by giving us a close-up view of what’s happening there in real-time. Years from now, dentists could extract a tooth from a patient, load it into this device, observe how a dental filling material interacts with the tooth, and pick a material that’s best for that particular patient.”

In an interview with the Portland Business Journal, Dr. Bertassoni said the “tooth-on-a-chip” is “almost ready to go,” although he acknowledges it may take time before clinicians become comfortable with the device.

The intent, the OHSU team notes, is to utilize the new technology to optimize and individualize dental treatments.

As OHSU’s White notes in her story, the concept of mini-organs (such as livers and lungs) on a chip is already well established. But this is the first such application in dentistry.

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