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Posted by: The Probe 8th April 2020
Nanotechnology is one of the most exciting scientific developments in recent times. It’s so exciting that much of what we hear about the technology sounds closer to science fiction than science fact. Despite some of the more fanciful depictions of the technology that currently abound, nanotechnology is already changing our modern world, and we are likely only seeing the tip of the spear.
What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology concerns the development and production of structures in the lowest tenth of the nanoscale (1-100nm), which is incredibly minute. One nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre, which is only a single order of magnitude greater than atoms. The most common cell in our bodies – the red blood cell – is around 6000-8000nm across, and it is estimated that a human body contains around 50 trillion cells over all.,  Most viruses range in diameter from 20nm to 400nm (though outliers can be in the 700-1,000nm range or above).
So far, most nanotechnological approaches have focused on modifying the surface of different materials. However, revolutionary developments in nanotechnology could be achievable if we can successfully build and control nanoscale machines. Should these prove safe and cost effective, their applications are virtually endless. For example, it is possible that nanomachines could one day make even toothbrushes and toothpaste obsolete. This may sound far-fetched today, but proof of concept work has already been completed on nanorobots that eradicated biofilms. The system successfully prevented regrowth of S. mutans even after 24 hours of incubation.
Beyond making toothbrushing redundant, such a system could help sterilise instruments and equipment, paving the way for safer examinations and surgery. Avenues such as these – where biofilm is removed and destroyed using physical means – are not just an improvement, but are also likely to be needed in the near future. Rising antibacterial resistance makes finding alternatives to antibiotics critical to maintaining public health.
Nanotechnology presents an opportunity to combat harmful bacteria in an entirely different way. For example, the surfaces of different materials can be modified to be ‘spiky’ at the nanoscale. These spikes – or nanopillars – can pierce and shred bacteria, preventing surface colonisation. The specific characteristics of these pillars (such as their height and relative sharpness) can be calibrated to selectively kill certain species, or taller, sharper pillars can be employed that are widely-effective.
Although the nanoscale can be difficult to visualise, this technology already plays an increasingly large role in our world, which has been a key driver in the possible applications of nanotechnology within dentistry. If we consider computer systems, for example, the transistor gate length in current silicon-based computer chips has been shrunk to 7nm (with efforts well underway to commercialise 5nm), allowing for billions of transistors to be packed into an area the size of your fingernail. Without microchips being engineered on this scale, modern devices such as smart phones would be completely unfeasible.
While much has been achieved in computing, it has required vast resources, decades of research, and overcoming incredible manufacturing challenges to engineer semiconductors on this scale. Due to the scales involved, rooms where microchips are produced must be kept free of even the smallest contaminants. Semiconductors are etched using photolithography – a process that utilises ultraviolet light to activate chemicals that modify the surface of silicone.
Similar processes can be used to modify the surface of titanium dental implants, altering the characteristics of the surface to improve biocompatibility. However, the manufacturing of dental implants on a nanoscale is yet to be implemented on a wider, mainstream level. At present, implant surfaces are modified on a micro and macroscale.
Implant surface topography influences the host’s biological response to the implant, and roughening its surface on the microscale has been shown to stimulate osseointegration.,  The cutting-edge Z1® implant system from TBR features a highly resilient titanium body that has been surface treated and machined to impeccable standards in order to maximise biocompatibility, stability and longevity.
The Z1® also combines the qualities of pure titanium with an intelligently designed zirconia collar. This improves soft tissue regeneration and encourages the gingiva to heal around the collar, creating a natural barrier that protects the crestal bone and gingiva from iatrogenic inflammation and infection, thereby ensuring a highly aesthetic and functional result. Protecting the bone-implant interface from infection is critical to osseointegration and the long-term success of an implant.
In the future, nanotechnology could provide a means by which to further enhance the peri-implant tissue response to modified implant surfaces. Coating titanium implants in nanofibers is an approach currently being tested in animals, with initial results indicating that this may promote osseointegration. Other nanoscale surface modifications are also being researched. However, it may take some time for these approaches to prove their worth and make it into refined implant systems.
Nanotechnology is demonstrating its vast potential within various different industries, including dentistry. As advances in the field snowball, the not-too-distant future could prove that the best things really do come in small packages.
Author: Mr. Matthieu Dupui Biomedical engineer TBR
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