We've been keeping an eye on efforts to make the dreaded dentist's drill a thing of the past for some time, and now there's more good news on the horizon for the cavity-prone (and pain-phobic). Engineers at the University of Missouri (MU) in conjunction with Nanova, Inc. have successfully lab-tested a plasma "brush" that can painlessly clean and prep cavities so well, there's no need for mechanical abrasion prior to filling. The really good news is that human clinical trials begin soon and, if all goes well, the device could hit dentist's offices as soon as late 2013.

The overall process, which in the lab proved to be free of side effects, takes about 30 seconds per cavity and not only disinfects the area by bombarding bacteria with ions, but also favorably alters the surface of the tooth so that the filling material bonds even more effectively.

"One of the major problems in the dental field is there are certain types of cavities that, when you try to restore them, the life-span of that restoration is only about 5-7 years," said Andre Ritts, senior scientist at Nanova, Inc. "So we'll try to use the plasma brush to modify the tooth surface to let the filling material better adhere to that surface. With a better adhesion, a better wedding of that surface, you create less voids and a stronger bond with the tooth, which should hopefully also increase the life-span of those restorations."

Correcting tooth decay is very big business in the United States with the current price-tag for the roughly 200 million annual dental restorations easily adding up to a cool US$50 billion. Hao Li, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the MU College of Engineering, believes his team's new plasma brush could help lower that expense appreciably.

"A tooth can only support two or three restorations before it must be pulled," Li said. "Our studies indicate that fillings are 60 percent stronger with the plasma brush, which would increase the filling lifespan. This would be a big benefit to the patient, as well as dentists and insurance companies." Indeed, the painless aspect alone would likely drum up more business from those who have been avoiding the dentist's chair from their fear for needles and drills. On top of that, stronger, longer-lasting fillings translates into fewer visits, and that's an idea we can all sink our teeth into!

Check out the video below to learn more about the plasma brush.