Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"Sparkling Teeth" Gets A New Meaning

Here's a report on one of those nifty little scientific/medical innovations that I love so much. Not only does this one involve medical breakthroughs, but it has fireworks as well, another of my very favorite things. Well, okay, not exactly fireworks, more like sparklers, tiny ones at that, but let's not be picky. Zeeya Merali, at New Scientist, brings us up to date on a new miniature plasma torch, called a plasma needle, that could be of significant use for both dentistry and cancer treatment. Odd combo, you say? So do I, but, there it is. It seems that this plasma needle could one day replace the dentists drill, and also enable doctors to kill cancer cells and cauterize around a tumor, without damaging the surrounding tissue. The kicker is that the needle is said to be painless, and cold to the touch, despite the flaming plasma.

Physicist Eva Stoffels-Adamowicz, .."who is based at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands," is the needle's inventor:

Stoffels-Adamowicz came up with the idea for the needle while working with low-pressure plasmas, which are created in a vacuum. In order for the plasma to be used on people, she and her colleagues developed a plasma needle that works in air. The needle is a 50-millimetre-long tungsten wire housed in a quartz tube filled with gas. Driving a voltage through the needle generates a small plasma spark at its tip "like a children's sparkler", explains Stoffels-Adamowicz.
The scientists have found a way to generate a nitric oxide plasma using the needle, which, according to Merali, is something the body naturally uses to fight infection and inflammation and, "...when the nitric oxide plasma is produced using small amounts of energy and applied in short bursts, it can kill bacteria while leaving other living cells unharmed." It gets even spiffier, though, because the nitric oxide can also tell cancer cells to shut down:
Nitric oxide is also involved in cell messaging, so it can be used to trigger programmed cell death. Using higher-energy doses of plasma, in longer bursts, the team was able to target certain living cells and cauterise the tissue while leaving surrounding cells undamaged. "The plasma needle could be used to excise tumours or skin cancers," says Stoffels-Adamowicz. "It's surgery without cutting."
How neat is that? They're working on other ways to use the plasma as well, such as clearing blocked arteries, although for now it looks like the dentists will be getting first crack at it as a drill replacement. I posted last Thursday on some new tech advances that might lead to dentistry that actually helps people regrow damaged teeth; between that and the painless replacement to drilling, dentists may be getting a lot more popular in the near future. They might at least be losing the dread factor (something that could also be accomplished if patients were simply more diligent about flossing, but that's another subject altogether.)

Hat tip: Futurismic