Using tooth sensors to detect disease

Collaborative research team developing biological sensors that would analyze saliva, send information electronically to doctors Read More

From the WashU Newsroom

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the School of Engineering & Applied Science is redefining the notion of a wisdom tooth.

The team is developing a smart-tooth technology that could someday be used to detect early signs of certain diseases in high-risk patients by analyzing saliva or gingival crevicular fluid.

“Salivary-based biosensors have generated a lot of interest because of their potential for wide applications in medicine,” said Erica Lynn Scheller, who trained as a dentist and is now an assistant professor of medicine and of cell biology and physiology in the School of Medicine. “We’re initially working to develop a biological sensor that measures specific peptides active in periodontal disease and that would be used in combination with a wireless device to retrieve that data.”

“It’s like an electronic tooth,” said Shantanu Chakrabartty, professor of electrical & systems engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science and a partner on the project, currently funded by a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

That electronic tooth is actually a tiny sensor and an electronic chip, about a few millimeters-cube in volume. It is designed to be inserted inside the patient’s gum line or as part of a dental appliance, and contains bio-recognition elements that measure disease-specific peptides, which are natural or synthetic groups of amino acids. As a first attempt, the research team will work toward monitoring peptides related to bone breakdown during periodontitis, a dental disease that can lead to loosening and loss of teeth. A wireless ultrasound device would then be used to read the peptide levels and connect to the medical data-cloud.

Right now, one of the project’s biggest challenges is chemistry.

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Posted on April 19, 2018
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