Lost a tooth? No problem, just print another. A strange notion, but one that Dutch researchers are trying to make a reality with 3D-printed teeth made from antimicrobial plastic.
Scientists in the Netherlands developed the material by adding antimicrobial salts to existing dental resin (the stuff that dentists use to fill your cavities). The resulting mix is hardened with ultraviolet light and used to print artificial teeth.
When the material was tested by exposing it to human saliva and Streptococcus mutans, the bacterium that causes tooth decay, it killed over 99 per cent of all bacteria. “[It kills] bacteria on contact, but on the other hand it’s not harmful to human cells,” said Andreas Herrmann, a chemist involved in developing the material.
Imagine, teeth that stay white over time, could be printed in minutes and repel plaque on contact.
Now, researchers are investigating further to ensure the finished product can withstand typical day-to-day exposures, such as acidic foods, carbonated beverages and toothpaste. Though Herrmann said that additional tests are needed to confirm that the material is durable enough to act as a tooth over longer periods, he remains optimistic that the new technology will reach the market soon. “It’s a medical product with a foreseeable application in the near future, much less time than developing a new drug.”
Currently, dental-grade 3D printers are still very costly, but increased interest and research has resulted in 3D technology becoming more affordable over time.
This is especially good news in developing countries, where research shows accessibility to oral health is widely inadequate. In Africa, the World Health Organization said that the dentist to population ratio is widely disproportionate – approximately 1:150,000, compared to around 1:2,000 in most industrialized countries.
With non-printed implants ranging from $4,500 a tooth up to $45,000 for a full set, a cheaper alternative, if at all possible, would be a giant victory for accessibility to oral health globally. Since the material is still in its testing phase, there is little word on what its cost will be, but 3D printers have already been able to replicate many other prosthetics at a fraction of the price.
JaipurKnee is a 3D-printed knee that costs just $20 USD. As traditional prosthetic knees range anywhere from $10,000 USD to $100,000 USD, it’s especially helpful for amputees living in developing or disadvantaged countries. Additionally, though prosthetic hands with mobile fingers can cost between $31,000 and $94,000 USD, Open Bionics, a UK-based 3D printing company, can scan and print a custom one for $3,100 in less than two days.
3D printing has advanced by leaps and bounds in the years since its inception. Despite the hurdles of clinical tests and trials, it’s undeniable that the technology is playing a larger role than ever in both medicine and dentistry. From aesthetic applications like dentistry to more physical ones such as printing artificial bone, tissue and, potentially, organs, who knows what we’ll print next.