Traditionally, fillings have been made from a variety of materials. Gold and silver have a long history of use, although many modern fillings use composite materials that mimic the natural appearance of teeth. But soon, dental fillings might be made from something else entirely: microscopic nanoparticles.
Recent advancements in nanotechnology could have implications for dentistry. Nanoparticles, by definition, range from 1-100 nm (nanometers) in size. A nanometer is incredibly tiny: one billionth of a meter. To give you an idea of the size, many viruses are 30-50 nm long. DNA is around 2.5 nm wide. Because the particles are so incredibly small, nanomaterials have unique properties on a macroscopic scale. Recently, there has been quite a bit of research into their potential applications in medicine and dentistry.
In the near future, dental fillings could be made from mixtures of nanoparticles, primarily composed of silicon and zirconia. Unlike traditional metal fillings, they mimic the appearance of natural enamel, and are less likely to come loose.
But better fillings aren’t the only benefit of dental nanomaterial. These substances also have antimicrobial properties, which aren’t subject to the same resistances that rapidly develop to traditional antibiotics.
The world is in the midst of a biomedical crisis. Across the globe, bacterial pathogens are rapidly developing resistance to widely used antibiotics, putting people at greater risk of debilitating or fatal disease. These organisms reproduce very quickly by human standards. E. coli, a potentially pathogenic bacterium that’s widely used in laboratories as a model organism, has a generation time of as little as half an hour. This short generation time means that bacterial populations develop new evolutionary traits quickly, one of which is antibiotic resistance. The growing threat of drug-resistant pathogens has been attributed to antibiotic overuse, a tendency to prescribe antibiotics inappropriately to patients with non-bacterial illnesses, agricultural use, and other factors.
Part of what makes nanomaterials so promising is that they have antibiotic properties. Recent research has indicated that nanomaterials composed of metal oxides are antimicrobial, and that they prevent the formation of bacterial biofilms. If the bacteria come into direct contact with the nanomaterials, or if the nanomaterials leech into the surrounding environment, the bacteria will die within minutes. Not only that, but they’re also effective for killing viruses and fungi.
Some of the metals involved, notably silver, have been limited by their toxicity to humans. However, by incorporating tiny silver particles into nanomaterials, the toxicity of silver ions can be reduced. The curious biological properties of silver nanomaterials are still under investigation, and are quickly becoming a priority for future in vivo research.
Because of their bactericidal effects, dental nanomaterials can not only decrease the risk of infection, but help prevent further plaques and caries from forming. Due to their nature and their mechanisms of action, they do not carry the same risk of resistance as traditional antibiotics.
One recently developed nanocomposite is based on calcium phosphate nanoparticles, combined with both silver and ammonium. It has an alkaline pH, limiting the damaging acids produced by oral bacteria, and the silver content is strongly antimicrobial.
Dental nanotechnology is developing rapidly, but safety and cost barriers impede its introduction to the market. There is controversy whether some of the components may be toxic to healthy living cells, and there is still a need for pre-clinical and clinical trials before such nanomaterials can be approved. With that said, there is immense interest in dental nanomaterials within the scientific community, and in a few years, nanocomposites that protect the teeth from damage might become widely available.
Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. File # 2016-29438 (exp. 9/18)
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