(ORDO NEWS) — Many people know that enamel is the hardest substance in the human body. It is also notoriously difficult to reproduce artificially.
Throughout history, dentists have repaired damaged and decayed teeth using a variety of materials. However, they may soon have a synthetic version that will be much closer to the real one.
A team of chemical and design engineers have come up with a new material that mimics the basic properties of enamel. It is durable and, most importantly, slightly elastic.
This versatile substance can be used to strengthen broken bones, create better pacemakers and, in addition to being used as a replacement for tooth enamel, take fillings to the next level by creating “smart teeth”. A study of this work was published in the journal Science.
Natural enamel does the difficult job of protecting teeth, which are constantly exposed to oral bacteria, acidic foods, chewing, and even speech. Over time, wear increases.
“You wear the same set of teeth for 60 years, maybe more,” says University of Michigan chemical engineer and study co-author Nikolai Kotov. “So it’s a huge chemical and mechanical stress.” And unlike bone, enamel cannot be repaired by the human body.
The essential combination of strength and flexibility of enamel is difficult to reproduce. “Soft materials tend to be easier to make,” explains Kotov. The secret of the unique balanced properties of enamel lies in its structure. It is made up of millions of densely packed calcium phosphate rods that are only visible through an electron microscope.
“Imagine a pack of pencils when you hold them together,” says University of Southern California biochemist Janet Moradian-Oldak, who was not involved in the study.
This arrangement allows the rods to compress slightly under pressure rather than collapse, while keeping the overall structure extremely strong. Artificial enamel mimics this configuration by binding calcium phosphate rods together with flexible polymer chains.
The researchers shaped their new material into a tooth shape and then tested whether it would crack under intense heat and pressure. Ultimately, the team found that artificial enamel could withstand more force than natural enamel.
Beyond the obvious potential in dentistry, Kotov envisions the material being used to create better and more durable pacemakers for people with heart disease, or to strengthen deteriorating bones in people with severe osteoporosis.
He says the material could even be modified to create a “smart tooth,” a prosthesis containing sensors that can sync with a smartphone. Such a device could monitor a person’s breath and bacteria in the mouth for abnormalities, allowing doctors to spot conditions like diabetes before the patient is aware of them.
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