In the near future, a laser device inspired by NASA may replace the dentist's drill. Flip a switch and it will also replace the dentist's razor-sharp scalpel. And the best part: it's virtually painless and requires no anesthesia for most patients.
Lasers exist today that work on hard tissue like teeth to prepare the tooth for filling, and on soft tissue for gum treatment and oral surgery.
But none do both, and buying two laser systems is an expensive proposition. That is mainly why only 5 percent of approximately 140,000 practicing dentists in the U.S. use a laser system.
Now, researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., have demonstrated that the two laser wavelengths important to dentists can be produced from a single, easy-to-use system.
"The system is simple because we've already done all the complex physics in the lab," said Langley laser researcher Keith Murray, one of three inventors of the dental laser technology. The other inventors are Norman Barnes, also of Langley's Laser Systems Branch, and Ralph Hutcheson of Scientific Materials Corp., Bozeman, Mont.
Both wavelengths can be produced using the same hardware, dramatically reducing cost and complexity. Switching between the two wavelengths is accomplished by selecting the amount and rate of energy pumped into the specially-designed laser system. The resulting hardware is about one-half the size of two distinct laser systems and does not require the laser system to be "tuned" by the operator like typical present-day systems.
A typical hard tissue laser costs about $38,000, and a soft tissue laser costs around $25,000. The dual wavelength unit made possible by this new technology is expected to cost less than $30,000. Each one percent of market share of the American dental market for this technology represents approximately $50 million in sales.
Lantis Laser, Inc., Hewitt, NJ, is working with NASA Langley to refine the performance of the technology to explore its potential as a commercial dental laser product. Under the terms of a Space Act Agreement, a Lantis scientist will perform research in a Langley lab with help from the technology's inventors. Assuming Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the technology by mid-2001, the goal is to begin sales of the device by the end of 2001. Dr. Craig Gimbel is a dentist, co-founder of Lantis and a principal investigator for the FDA clinical trials that led to the May 1997 approval of lasers for hard-tissue dentistry. Dr. Gimbel believes both patients and dentists would find much to like about a dual-wave dental laser.
"Filled teeth can be stronger," according to Dr. Gimbel, "because a laser removes less of the healthy tooth for filling. A dual wavelength laser could also minimize blood flow during surgery by searing the cut. And the dentist feels more comfortable when the patient feels more comfortable. When I don't have to use a dental drill, or I don't have to use a scalpel, or I don't have to use anesthesia in all procedures, I feel better and, of course, my patient does."
The discovery of the two-wavelength technology is a spin-off of work to develop high power lasers for remote sensing of the atmosphere, a key element in NASA's atmospheric sciences mission. The technology has also been used in aeronautics research including measurements of winds, wind shear and turbulence in flight and measurement of wake vortices from the ground in airport terminal areas. Those investigations led to the discovery that it is possible to selectively produce two or more useful wavelengths from a single laser source.
For information about business opportunities with NASA, check the internet at: http://tech-transfer.larc.nasa.gov/
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