“Tooth-on-a-Chip” Technology: A Glimpse into the Future of Dentistry
Dental researchers have long been striving to find new technologies and breakthroughs that make dental care easier and more effective for the patient. Last year, they saw a major victory: For the first time, an “organ-on-a-chip” system was created for dental research. It’s known as a “tooth-on-a-chip,” and it shows us an exciting glimpse into the future of dentistry.
Background: What Is a “Tooth-on-a-Chip” and How Does It Work?
The tooth-on-a-chip system mimics a real human tooth with a cavity. It is comprised of a thin slice of human molar placed between transparent slides. These slides are carved with tiny channels that can be filled with fluids and bacteria, imitating the movement between a real cavity opening and an inner tooth. Dental researchers use a microscope to observe how the tooth-on-a-chip interacts with different materials and bacteria. Similar “organ-on-a-chip” technology has been used before with livers, lungs, and more, but this marks the first time that the science has been applied within the dental field.
The tooth-on-a-chip is made from molded polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). It has two chambers separated by a dentin fragment. Stem cell-derived odontoblasts are sown onto the dentin to create accurate pulp cell responses to biomaterials. This technology enables a real-time view of odontoblast monolayer formation, remodeling, and death as a result of different materials. The tooth-on-a-chip almost perfectly replicates the conditions of the pulp-dentin interface, making live-cell imaging possible as a way to study dental pulp cell responses to filling materials.
The most exciting possibility for this technology is how it may improve cavity fillings. Today’s fillings typically last from five to seven years before breaking off, and this is in large part because researchers have been unable to observe what happens at the junction of tooth and filling. Now, tooth-on-a-chip technology is enabling researchers to get a close-up view of this interaction like never before. The device helps scientists better understand how dental cells operate in their natural environment, which will aid in the design of cavity fillings that are more effective and longer lasting.
In the future, dentists may be able to extract a tooth from a patient and use tooth-on-a-chip technology to observe how different fillings interact with it. They can then choose a material that works best for each individual patient. Fillings are not “one size fits all” — in fact, different patients can react quite differently to the same material. Tooth-on-a-chip technology introduces a new level of complexity and customization, opening the door for improved patient outcomes. It will likely be applied not only in filling cavities, but also in preventing them.
With over 90 percent of adults aged 20 to 64 experiencing cavities—26 percent of which go untreated—any scientific breakthrough in this area has the potential to help a large number of people. Dental researchers are working hard to create a world with fewer cavities, better treatments, and improved prevention. Highly customizable technologies like tooth-on-a-chip are paving the way forward to a brighter future for dental patients.