Dental Research

Will ultrasound and squid ink replace dental probes?

September 27, 2017

Dental professionals have long used hook-shaped dental probes to measure the gaps between the gum and the tooth as a method of checking for signs of periodontal disease. But measuring pocket depth—a key step in the dental checkup—is not a hygienist favorite, as the sharp probes make patients uncomfortable and the process can be time-consuming and imprecise due to its somewhat subjective nature.

A recent PBS Newshour piece profiled a nanoengineer who thinks he may found a better way to measure pocket depth, without the sharp probes. Jesse Jokerst, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, was at his dentist getting poked and probed when he thought of his alternative: squid ink and high-resolution photoacoustic ultrasound.

Jokerst recently published a study in the Journal of Dental Research describing his method. Patients would first swish a small amount of squid ink (cuttlefish ink, to be exact), which is extremely dark and rich in nanoparticles. A laser then emits a short burst of light to heat the squid ink, causing it to swell, and creating pressure differences in the gum pockets that are detected via ultrasound with great accuracy.

The ink is safe for human consumption (although it’s quite bitter—Jokerst is looking to add plenty of mint); so far this new method has been successfully tested on pigs, with human clinical trials in the works.

Jokerst acknowledges that many technical hurdles remain, but his idea is certainly intriguing and could dramatically improve a key dental procedure.