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German dentists develop 'painless' plasma tooth-blaster

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More news of exotic high technology benefiting the human race today, as German gnasher-boffins announce a cunning plan to replace dentists' drills with "painless, contact-free" plasma beam devices.

Rotting teeth, one of the most painful (and expensive) medical problems faced by modern humans, are caused when mouth bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacillus casei build up on the teeth. The dastardly micro-organisms can erode a tooth's tough enamel, coating and start to infect the "dentin" tissue beneath it, eventually destroying large parts of the tooth and - when they reach the living pulp at its centre - causing intense pain.

Normally a dentist will tackle such a cavity by drilling out all the infected tissue before putting in a filling. Such drilling often requires a local anaesthetic, meaning that the procedure is skilled and expensive work.

But now, according to boffins at the Leibniz-Institute of Surface Modifications in Leipzig and dentists from the Saarland University, there's an alternative. A rotting tooth can simply be blasted with beams of "cold plasma", which will kill off all the entrenched bacteria without any need for drilling or anaesthesia.

The German researchers have carried out tests on dentin samples from extracted human molars which had been deliberately infected with several different kinds of bacteria. Their "cold" (roughly 40°C) plasma-beam instruments apparently killed 99.99 per cent of the tooth-rotting invaders.

"Drilling is a very uncomfortable and sometimes painful experience. Cold plasma, in contrast, is a completely contact-free method that is highly effective," says Dr Stefan Rupf of Saarland Uni.

"The low temperature means they can kill the microbes while preserving the tooth. The dental pulp at the centre of the tooth, underneath the dentin, is linked to the blood supply and nerves and heat damage to it must be avoided at all costs."

According to Dr Rupf, dental plasma tools "can be expected" within 3 to 5 years. Parallel developments in non-dental medicine have lately seen US special forces trying out a portable, mini-light-sabre-esque "plasma blade" for use in field surgery.

There's a scholarly paper by Rupf and his colleagues, Killing of adherent oral microbes by a non-thermal atmospheric plasma jet, here. ®

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