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Friday, 2 June, 2000, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
Laser offers painless dentistry
Laser BBC
Open wide: Switchable laser does two jobs
A dual-purpose laser inspired by space research could do away with both the dentist's drill and scalpel. At the flick of a switch the laser will operate on either teeth or gums.

It is claimed the new device would be virtually painless and require no anaesthetic for most patients.

Lasers exist today that work on hard tissue like teeth to prepare the tooth for filling, and on soft tissue for gum treatment and oral surgery. But none do both, and buying two laser systems is expensive.

Now, researchers at Nasa's Langley Research Center have demonstrated that the two laser wavelengths important to dentists can be produced from a single, easy-to-use system.

"The system is simple because we've already done all the complex physics in the lab," said Langley laser researcher Keith Murray, one of three inventors of the dental laser technology.

Both wavelengths can be produced using the same hardware, dramatically reducing cost and complexity.

Dentists can switch between the two by selecting the amount and rate of energy pumped into the specially designed laser system.

More efficient

The resulting hardware is about one-half the size of two separate laser systems and does not require the laser system to be tuned by the operator like typical present-day systems.

"Filled teeth can be stronger because a laser removes less of the healthy tooth for filling. A dual wavelength laser could also minimise blood flow during surgery by searing the cut," said Dr Craig Gimbel, who led clinical trials to approve lasers in dentistry.

The discovery of the two-wavelength technology is a spin-off of work to develop high-power lasers for remote sensing of the atmosphere, a key element in Nasa's atmospheric sciences mission.

The technology has also been used in aeronautics research, including measurements of wind shear and turbulence in flight and measurement of wake vortices from the ground in airport terminal areas.

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