UNM’s dental technology could shake up the industry

Leisha Armijo-Martin, in her lab where she works. She is a nanomaterials engineer who leads a team at MNT SmartSolutions developing a remote-controlled, magnetic antibacterial toothpaste and toothbrush. (Courtesy of MNT SmartSolutions LLC)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

A remote-controlled, magnetic toothpaste and toothbrush that injects antibacterial solutions into the nooks and crannies of the gums and teeth may soon be on the market, thanks to new nanotechnology developed at the University of New Mexico.

The product is still in development, but a newly formed startup company, MNT SmartSolutions LLC, is working to get it on store shelves in the next few years. Once available to consumers, it could potentially “revolutionize” the oral care industry, which has remained unchanged for as long as people can remember, according to company executives and the research team that created it.

This team, led by nanomaterials engineer Leisha Armijo-Martin, includes current and former UNM biologists, toxicologists, pharmaceutical and environmental scientists, and research engineers from UNM’s Center for Advanced Materials, Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, and the University of Dentistry of Bristol School in England.

The team wants to create a combined toothpaste and toothbrush package that offers an interactive, nanotechnology-based at-home dental care solution for shoppers that ranks alongside Crest, Colgate and the like, Armijo-Martin said.

“This could replace today’s toothpaste on store shelves, where we’ve seen the same toothpaste and toothbrushes for 50 to 100 years,” Armijo-Martin told the Journal. “It will be a smart, interactive toothpaste and toothbrush that shoppers can choose as they walk down the aisles.”

Nanotechnology

The product is based on non-toxic, environmentally friendly nanoparticles that, when combined with iron oxide, have both strong magnetic and antibacterial properties, Armijo-Martin said. This nano material is the “secret sauce” that goes into the toothpaste, which is then brushed on as usual over the teeth and gums.

However, the toothbrush is designed to create a remotely controlled electromagnetic field that can be switched on and off. Once on, it pulls the nano particles embedded in the toothpaste down into the gums, cavities and hard-to-reach crevices between the teeth.

Once applied, the antimicrobial elements immediately attack bacteria and plaque formation in the mouth, with additional sustained-release effects that target infected areas.

The remote control toothbrush remains switched off until the toothpaste is applied to the teeth to avoid clumping of the magnetic beads in the nano material before brushing.

“You turn off the remote control while the toothpaste is in the tube and while it’s brushing on the teeth,” Armijo-Martin said. “Then you turn it on so that the electromagnetic field can pull the nanoparticles down below the gum lines and along the teeth to reach previously unreachable areas.”

Nanoparticles specifically target bad bacteria.

Leisha Armijo-Martin, in her lab at work. Armijo-Martin is a nanomaterials engineer who leads a team at MNT SmartSolutions developing a remote-controlled, magnetic antibacterial toothpaste and toothbrush. (Courtesy of MNT SmartSolutions LLC)

“People like to use mouthwash like Listerine, but that kills everything, including the good bacteria,” Armijo-Martin said. “This will preferentially attack only the bad bacteria.”

This targeting effect comes from a polymer coating embedded on the surface of the nanoparticles. The coating is similar to the chemistry found in bad bacteria that naturally produce a plastic film to protect their colonies.

“By engineering magnetic particles with similar chemistry, the nanoparticles are attracted to the bacterial biofilm that accumulates,” Armijo-Martin said. “And they stay there as they release antimicrobial compounds to create a lasting effect.”

Armijo-Martin discovered the antibacterial potential of magnetic nanoparticles while working to develop them as a targeted medicine courier to deliver drugs directly to infections.

“We found that nanoparticles have their own antibacterial properties,” she said.

This led to research to instead explore using the particles directly against bacteria, both to prevent and treat infections.

The technology can also be applied as a topical and internal antibacterial treatment for wounds, abrasions and infections. But MNT SmartSolutions focuses first on the dental industry, which offers a huge market with the potential for wide impact in the prevention and treatment of periodontal disease, gingivitis and caries.

Periodontitis is a chronic inflammatory condition resulting from the persistence of bacterial biofilm or dental plaque infections, which is considered the 11th most common disease in the world. In addition to tooth loss, it is linked to many other health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

Direct consumer sales

The company will market its technology directly to orthodontists, but its biggest impact may be in the direct-to-consumer market.

“People don’t like having their gums scraped,” Armijo-Martin said. “It’s painful and expensive. With this, they can do it themselves at home to prevent tooth decay and gum disease.”

So far, laboratory tests on bacterial culture cells, plus toxicity tests on human mammalian cells, show that the technology is effective and safe.

In May, the company received a $256,000 National Science Foundation phase one grant to begin trials on mice, said MNT SmartSolutions Chief Financial Officer John Chavez.

“We did all the bench work through in vitro testing,” Chavez told the Journal. “The NSF funding allows us to move to control tests in mice. This work started in June.’

When the mouse trials are complete, MNT will seek an NSF Phase II grant to conduct more tests with other animals before moving to human clinical trials to gain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, Chavez said.

The full process can take four or five years before the technology comes to market.

MNT is one of 15 local companies created by the New Mexico Startup Factory, which launched 10 years ago to commercialize new technologies from the state’s research universities and national laboratories. Chavez is president of Startup Factory, which recently signed a licensing agreement to commercialize MNT technology with UNM’s Rainforest Innovations, which manages all of the university’s technology transfer and economic development programs.

Chavez sees huge potential for the MNT.

“We have a team of very experienced researchers in the world of oral care from New Mexico, Texas and England working on this,” Chavez said. “The dental care industry offers a huge market for new products because it hasn’t had much modern innovation for many years.”

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