Treating cavities without drilling could mean less apprehensive patients at the dentist's office.
Patents are the DNA of inventions, spawning entire new industries, businesses and economies. The giving away of patents by Toyota to spur development in hydrogen fuel, and by Tesla to help kickstart electric vehicle technology, are recent examples. A study by the Brookings Institution finds that the most productive periods in the United States occurred during the early 20th century and the Great Depression. The rate of patenting is nearly as high today as at any time in U.S. history. The most patents (per capita) came in 1916, 1915, 1885, 1932, 2010, 2011, 1931, 1883, 1890 and 1917. Here’s a look at some inventions from those years.
1883: Thomas Edison's Voltage Regulator
Superstar-inventor Thomas Edison has claimed more than 1,000 patents, including the phonograph, light bulb and this electronic device that was key to the development of radio, television and computer transistors.
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1885: Machine Gun
American-born British citizen Hiram Maxim invents a self-powered portable and fully-automatic machine gun that changes warfare. Its effects on society and the constitutional right to own it are still being debated today.
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1890: Stop Sign
William Phelps Eno proposed the first set of traffic rules and signs in an article in Rider and Driver, although the first actual sign didn’t appear until 1915.
1915: Stainless Steel Sink
The discovery of a new “rustless” steel by British metallurgist Harry Brearley is announced in the New York Times. Brearley applied for a patent that year, but American Elwood Haynes beat him to it. Its shiny surface, strength and corrosive resistant properties revolutionized modern industry from skyscrapers to kitchen utensils, trains and planes to medicine.
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1916: Condenser Microphone
Edward C. Wente of New Jersey’s Bell Labs invents the electronic condenser microphone, which can be found today in recording, television, film and radio studios.
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1917: Modern Zipper
Gideon Sundback figures out that 10 fasteners per inch works much better than four and invents the modern zipper, or “separable fastener.” Used to close boots and tobacco pouches, the zipper doesn’t get into clothing for another 20 years.
1931: Stop-action Photography
Harold “Doc” Edgerton began playing around with strobe lighting while a grad student at MIT, developing both stop-action and ultra-high speed photography. His images of exploding bullets, running athletes and milk droplets became iconic photos. He went on to invent underwater time-lapse photography, atomic bomb timing and lights for copiers and flash photography.
Edwin Land invents the polarizer, which filters light waves and reduces glare. He goes on to invent instant photography, while the polarizer leads to sunglasses, camera filters and LCDs.
Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis
Apple debuted its iPad tablet in April 2010. Its history goes back to 1983, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs said he wanted to build a computer that users could carry around like a book, plug into telephone communications and link to libraries and other databases. It has been successful, kind of.
- A new gel could soon eliminate painful fillings and root canals.
- The technology doesn't prevent cavities; it heals teeth by regenerating them.
- Although this is good news for teeth, the research could also be applied to heal bones and other tissues in the body.
Dentists could soon hang up their drills. A new peptide, embedded in a soft gel or a thin, flexible film and placed next to a cavity, encourages cells inside teeth to regenerate in about a month, according to a new study in the journal ACS Nano. This technology is the first of its kind.
The new gel or thin film could eliminate the need to fill painful cavities or drill deep into the root canal of an infected tooth.
"It's not like toothpaste," which prevent cavities, said Nadia Benkirane-Jessel, a scientist at the Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale and a co-author of a recent paper. "Here we are really trying to control cavities (after they develop)."
Drilling teeth and filling them is safe and effective. Dentists fill millions of cavities each year across the United States. However, though dentists numb the tooth, many patients still rue the sound of that drill.
The new research could make a trip to the dentist's office more pleasant, said Berkirane-Jessel. Instead of a drill, a quick dab of gel or a thin film against an infected tooth could heal teeth from within.
Cavities are bacteria and pus-filled holes on or in teeth which can lead to discomfort, pain and even tooth loss. When people eat acidic foods, consume sugary snacks or simply don't maintain proper oral hygiene, bacteria begin to eat away at the protective enamel and other minerals inside teeth.
The causes of cavities are varied. But for most cavities, the treatment is the same: drilling into a tooth, removing the decay and filling in the hole to prevent further damage.
The gel or thin film contains a peptide known as MSH, or melanocyte-stimulating hormone. Previous experiments, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that MSH encourages bone regeneration.
Treating cavities without drilling could mean less apprehensive patients at the dentist's office. Getty Images
Bone and teeth are fairly similar, so the French scientists reasoned that if the MSH were applied to teeth, it should help healing as well.
To test their theory, the French scientists applied either a film or gel, both of which contained MSH, to cavity-filled mice teeth. After about one month, the cavities had disappeared, said Benkirane-Jessel.
Benkirane-Jessel cautions that the MSH-containing films or gels only treat cavities; they don't prevent them. People will still need to brush, floss and use mouthwash to help prevent cavities from forming in the first place.
Treating cavities without drilling "would have its advantages," said Hom-Lay Wang, a dentist at the University of Michigan. Cavities and drilling can destroy the nerves and blood vessels inside a tooth, making it more brittle and likely to fracture. Regenerating a tooth could help avoid crowns after a cavity has been filled.
That said, regenerating a tooth from within would only be useful in a relatively small number of cases. Most cavities would still need to be drilled and filled.
In the meantime, patients can't slacken their oral hygiene either. Numerous clinical trials over several years will have to be completed before the MSH-containing gels or films are available to treat cavities in humans.