What if you had a way to know exactly when bacteria populations were getting dangerously high in your mouth and causing damage to your teeth? Or what if you could know exactly what bacteria were in your mouth so you knew how best to combat them and reverse their damage? Now imagine that the sensor can go beyond this to pick up on markers in your saliva for other types of infections and health conditions, from AIDS to cancer to ulcers?

What I just described is exactly what researchers at Princeton and Tufts University have invented, but not yet perfected: a tiny sensor that can be attached to a tooth and may someday be able to give all the information described above based on the principle that oral health and whole-body health are intimately connected.


A Temporary “Tattoo”

Researchers dubbed their invention a “tooth tattoo,” but it’s actually more like a sticker. It’s got a backing of specially engineered silk that is used to keep the sensor from suffering too much damage before it’s applied and help it adhere at first. This backing dissolves naturally in about 15-20 minutes.

The sensor sits on top of this backing. It’s got just three layers: a gold foil circuit, an atom-thick layer of graphite that is known as a graphene, and a specially designed peptide. A peptide is a molecule made up of amino acids (the same compounds that make up proteins). The peptides have to be custom-designed so they can attach to the graphene on one side and the bacteria to be detected.

The sensor isn’t powered and doesn’t have a battery. Instead, it’s designed to emit signals in response to a radio signal from a special unit. The signal changes depending on whether bacteria are attached to it and how many.

Technical Challenges

If researchers want to get the sensor working to its full promise, they have a number of significant challenges to overcome. First, the sensor is too big. Researchers tested it on a cow’s tooth, and it will have to get significantly smaller in surface area. It will also have to be thinner. Although it’s only about as thick as a piece of paper, that’s too thick for someone to wear inside their mouth. People could feel it and would be unhappy.

But the biggest challenge is expanding the range of conditions that the sensor can detect. Right now it can only detect gram negative bacteria, the class of bacteria that cause periodontal disease. In order to detect other types of bacteria, the sensor will have to have new peptides engineered for each major class of bacteria and other marker that it is to detect.

However, technological marvels never spring fully armored from the heads of their inventors. We look forward to seeing this or another technology that takes full advantage of the range of health conditions that can be detected in your mouth.

At Rice Dentistry, we are committed to using the latest technology for detecting and treating your periodontal disease and other dental care needs, including genetic testing of bacteria.

To learn how our advanced technology can help you, please contact Rice Dentistry in Irvine for an appointment.