No more X-rays? 3D ultrasound system for dental checkups

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Researchers developing 3D ultrasound system for accurate, safe diagnosis of dental disease

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Researchers are developing an ultrasound device that could be used routinely in paediatric care—it produces three-dimensional images of teeth, soft tissue, blood flow and bone without exposing patients to radiation. (Image: Parkin Srihawong/Shutterstock)

EDMONTON, Canada: A team of researchers at the University of Alberta has secured funding to develop a 3D ultrasound device that would allow dentists to diagnose periodontal disease without using dental radiographic technology. The device is more portable and more affordable than CBCT imaging units, and the team hopes to eventually make it commercially available to dentists.

Ultrasound technology is already widely used in medical settings, but within dentistry it has mainly been utilised for tooth cleaning. Dr Paul Major, professor and chair of the School of Dentistry at the University of Alberta and an orthodontist, began using a medical ultrasound unit to examine the position of bone in patients with malocclusion. He and his team soon began work on developing an ultrasound unit of their own, however, owing to the lack of a commercially available unit with a probe that was small enough to be comfortably used in the mouth. The team has already developed a hand-held ultrasound device that produces two-dimensional images, and funding secured from Alberta Innovates, Alberta’s largest research and innovation agency, will be used to enable the device to produce 3D imagery.

Principal investigator Prof. Lawrence Le from the university’s Department of Radiology and Diagnostic Imaging said that 3D images will allow the researchers to examine a patient’s teeth and gingivae from different angles and to view soft tissue, blood flow and bone.

“The opportunity to image tissues without radiation exposure is seen as a major advancement” – Prof. Paul Major, University of Alberta

As well as being portable and more affordable than CBCT technology, the ultrasound device would not expose patients to radiation and therefore could be used routinely in paediatric care. It will be assisted by artificial intelligence in order to aid operators who are not trained in assessing ultrasound images.

Prof. Major explained to Dental Tribune International how the device works. He said: “The intra-oral probe is similar in size to a toothbrush or dental handpiece and is considerably smaller than the optical imaging tools in dentistry. The entire scanner is a hand-held device that interfaces using a wireless connection to a laptop computer for image processing, image viewing and image storage.” He said that feedback from dentists had been positive. “The opportunity to image tissues without radiation exposure is seen as a major advancement. This technology can provide information on both soft and hard tissue which is not available with traditional imaging devices,” Prof. Major said.

“We’ve done focus groups with various clinicians in private practice, and the 3D visualisation was top of the list for most,” Prof. Major commented in a press release. However, he pointed out: “As dentists, we’re not actually trained in ultrasound imaging assessment, so there’s a bit of a learning curve. Artificial intelligence can help with that.”

The researchers hope that the system will be available to dentists after it has undergone clinical trials to diagnose gingival disease and that it, in the future, it will be used to guide dental implant design, monitor oral lesions and potentially diagnose cavities.

An additional research project is being undertaken at the university in which researchers are using ultrasound technology to help orthodontists track the progress of treatment and assess the level of bone support in the mouth.

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