New technology for the mouth: Fashion statement or disease detector?

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on oral health resources at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Tooth tattoos. Who knew? They could be the dumbest thing ever. Or the smartest.

The dental website dentistry.com recently highlighted the dumb kind. It seems some dentists are now bonding tiny gold images such as crosses or letters to their patients front teeth as “fashion statements.”

Mary OttoMary Otto, AHCJ’s topic leader on oral health is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover oral health care.

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The ornaments are supposed to be temporary. But critics point out that most folks who pay good money to get them will then proceed to wear them as long as possible, posing a risk to the tooth.

“Dentists who perform this procedure may believe it to be safe,” Cheryl Watson-Lowry, D.D.S., a general dentist who practices on Chicago’s South Side told dentistry.com.

“It is possible that plaque can build up around the tattoo, causing an increasing chance of tooth decay. They seem to be easily removed, so if patients do elect to have them placed on their teeth, I would encourage them not to leave them for a long period of time.”

Now for the smart kind of tooth tattoo.

It’s an innovative tooth-mounted sensing device, fashioned from a sheet of gold foil, an atom-thick layer of graphite known as graphene, and a layer of peptides specially designed to sense bacteria within the mouth.

Researchers hope the device, which must overcome a number of hurdles before it is clinically tested, might someday provide a window into patients’ oral and overall health.

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It was developed by the Princeton nanoscientist Michael McAlpine and Tufts bioengineers Fiorenzo Omenetto, David Kaplan and Hu Tao and described in an article published in the journal Nature Communications.

The peptides serve as intermediary between bacteria in the mouth and the sensor, McAlpine explained in an article posted at Tufts Now, a site run by the University Relations office of Tufts University.

“At one end is a molecule that can bond with the graphene, and at the other is a molecule that bonds with bacteria,” allowing the sensor to register the presence of bacteria, he said.

So far, the researchers reported, the device has successfully detected a gram negative pathogen implicated in ulcers and stomach cancers.

Their work is one more reminder of the growing interest researchers are paying to saliva as a source of clues into the workings of oral diseases such as decay-causing caries, periodontal (gum) disease, as well as systemic diseases such as HIV and adverse birth outcomes.

For more on this, see a resource produced by the American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs.