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New ‘tooth-on-a-chip’ could lead to more personalized dentistry

Miniature dental device gives up-close, real-time view into how teeth respond to dental materials
The "tooth-on-a-chip" is allowing researchers from Dr. Luiz Bertassoni's OHSU lab to observe how teeth interact with reconstruction materials and bacteria. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

A so-called “tooth-on-a-chip” could one day enable more personalized dentistry, giving dentists the ability to identify dental filling materials that work better and last longer based on a patient’s own teeth and oral microbiome.

The miniaturized tooth system is a thin slice of a human molar placed between transparent rubber slides that are etched with tiny channels through which fluids flow. The research device mimics a real tooth with a cavity, which allows fluids and bacteria to move between the cavity opening and the inner tooth. Scientists use a microscope to observe the tooth as it interacts with materials and bacteria.

While other mini-organs such as livers and lungs have been placed on chips like this for research purposes, this is the first time an organ-on-a-chip system has been created for dental research, reports a paper published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Lab on a Chip.

Luiz Bertassoni, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Luiz Bertassoni, D.D.S., Ph.D.

“Today’s cavity fillings don’t work as well as they should. They last for five, seven years on average, and then they break off,” said the paper’s corresponding author, Luiz E. Bertassoni, D.D.S., Ph.D., associate professor of restorative dentistry in the OHSU School of Dentistry and biomedical engineering in the OHSU School of Medicine.

“They don’t work because we haven’t been able to figure out what’s happening at the interface of the tooth and the filling,” Bertassoni continued. “This device can help address that by giving us a close-up view of what’s happening there in real-time. Years from now, dentists could extract a tooth from a patient, load it into this device, observe how a dental filling material interacts with the tooth, and pick a material that’s best for that particular patient.”

(Left to right) Anthony Tahayeri, and Drs. Cristiane Franca and Luiz E. Bertassoni, in the Bertassoni Lab in December. The new device could be used to better understand how teeth form and how they respond biologically to all sorts of injuries and treatments.(OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

The device is designed to help scientists better understand the inner workings of dental cells in their natural environment. For example, researchers could use the tooth-on-a-chip to better understand how teeth form and how they respond biologically to all sorts of injuries and treatments.

“It opens up a new window into the complexity of dental care that could change the way we do dentistry quite significantly,” Bertassoni said.

This research was supported by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (grants R01DE026170 and 3R01DE026170-03S), the Oregon Clinical & Translational Research Institute's Biomedical Innovation Program, International Association for Dental Research Innovation in Oral Care Awards with funding provided by GlaxoSmithKline, Michigan-Pittsburgh-Wyss Resource Consortium's Regenerative Medicine Resource Center, and the OHSU Fellowship for Diversity and Inclusion in Research.

REFERENCE: Cristiane Franca, Anthony Tahayeri, Nara Rodrigues, Shirin Ferdosian, Regina Puppin Rontani, Grigoriy Sereda, Jack Ferracane, Luiz Bertassoni, “The tooth on-a-chip: a microphysiologic model system mimicking the biologic interface of the tooth with biomaterials,” Lab on a Chip, Dec. 19, 2019,

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