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Dental professor's invention makes
international top 100 list
September 28, 1998

A Health Center faculty member is part of a team whose invention is included in an international listing of the 100 most significant technological developments of the year.

Linda Otis, an assistant professor of oral diagnosis at the School of Dental Medicine, is a member of a team that invented an apparatus to detect dental caries (cavities) and periodontal disease using optical imaging. The other members of the team are faculty from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Medical Technology Program in Livermore, Calif.

The invention is named by R&D Magazine to its Top 100 Invention List, published in the September issue.

In this year's listing, only nine of the 100 inventions were developed by universities, including four from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Health Center, Purdue University and the University of Cincinnati were the only other American universities on the list, which also includes the University of West England and Ritsumeikan University in Japan.

"We're honored to have a faculty member on a team that developed an R&D 100 invention," said Leslie S. Cutler, Health Center chancellor. "Professor Otis is one of a number of Health Center faculty who, working with partners in the private or government sectors, have used their know-how and skills to produce new knowledge. That new knowledge - in the form of this invention - will benefit the dental patients of tomorrow," he said.

The apparatus, an optical ultra-high resolution dental imaging system, uses near infra-red light to obtain extremely high-resolution images of all dental tissues so dentists can plan effective therapies and give treatments.

The system is deployed in a hand-held apparatus that a dentist can use to scan a patient's mouth and teeth. With it, the dentist can not only see tiny cavities long before they become large cavities but can also look inside gums to detect the early stages of gum disease, or peer inside teeth to see if fillings and other dental work are holding up or need to be replaced.

"This invention can be a significant addition to the tool chest of the dentist," said Otis. "Not only does it take dental imaging a step forward, it takes dental therapeutics forward, too."

The advantages of the equipment include:

  • Safe, painless imaging - The near infra-red light from the apparatus is not potentially harmful like X-rays, so the dangers of radiation are eliminated. Further, the system eliminates the need for mechanical probing which can cause patient discomfort and trauma to tissue.

  • Adds a new dimension to dental imaging - Current mechanical probing yields only a single point of measurement which cannot be reproduced and is only as good as the clinician's eye. Remove the probe, and the measurement disappears. X-rays are an improvement but only provide a two-dimensional image. The new apparatus provides images which can be put together to form three-dimensional tomographic maps that are as yet unmatched for precision.

  • Images all dental tissues - X-rays are limited to making images of hard surfaces. In dentistry, this means enamel and dentin, the harder-than-bone substance that makes up the bulk of all teeth. But the new apparatus images hard and soft tissues alike, expanding both diagnosis and treatment options.

Patents and various business protocols, such as licensing, must be observed before the apparatus becomes available commercially. After production begins, the unit is expected to cost around $7,000 - about what a dental X-ray machine costs now.

The R&D 100 Awards were established in 1963. Since then, the awards have recognized many winning products that are now household names, including Polacolor film (1963), the flashcube (1965), the automated teller machine (1973), the halogen lamp (1974), the fax machine (1975), the liquid crystal display (1980), and the touch-sensitive screen and color graphics printer (1986). Recent awards include the Kodak Photo CD (1991), the Nicoderm antismoking patch (1992), the digital compact cassette (1993), and Taxol, the anticancer drug (1993).

Patrick Keef.

Patrick Keefe works in the communications office at the Health Center.