When Mark Twain said “truth is stranger than fiction,” he probably had someone like Jesse Jokerst in mind.
Jokerst is an assistant professor of nanoengineering at the University of California San Diego, and the lead researcher on a new study that aims to use squid ink to revolutionize dentistry.
Cephalopod ink, the dark, thick, blackish liquid that is crucial to a squid’s defense system, appears to have diagnostic significance as well.
The findings were published in a paper earlier this month in the Journal of Dental Research.
An idea over dinner
Jokerst’s research normally focuses on finding new medical uses for ultrasound.
He noticed this particular science didn’t seem to have made it into dental offices in any significant way.
Getting his teeth professionally cleaned meant having the dentist or dental assistant poke at his gums with a small metal probe, looking for pockets of gum disease.
Jokerst wondered if there was a better way to do this.
Then, one night he found himself having dinner with some Japanese colleagues who ordered squid.
Squid ink contains melanin nanoparticles, which absorb light.
And so the light dawned, so to speak.
Jokerst’s process involves imaging gums after a patient swishes around a mouthful of squid ink rinse.
The ultrasound creates a kind of map of all the pockets and around every tooth in much less time — and more objectively — than it takes to do the measurements by hand.
How the ink works
There can be a number of issues with hand-operated probes, as anyone who has had a dental exam can attest to.
For one thing, it’s sometimes painful to have a sharp metal object poking at your gums.
Plus, different dentists and hygienists have different techniques and different hand strength.
And just how thorough is each exam — does it check into the right side of every tooth? The bottom?
A more neutral approach such as a squid rinse is likely to even the playing field.
When the laser hits the mouth, the squid ink heats up and swells, creating pressure differences in the gum pockets that the ultrasound can easily detect, Jokerst said.
“It’s the difference between looking in a dark room with a flashlight vs. turning on the entire room lights,” he said.
Jokerst’s team is also working on the second half of the process.
The team’s ultimate goal is to create a mouthpiece that uses technology to measure periodontal health.
Although the ink stains the teeth, Jokerst said it comes off with a toothbrush.
And little squid ink is required to make the rinse.
Jokerst’s team bought a bottle of food grade squid ink online, and in eight months of testing used only about a teaspoonful.
So it is not likely this method, if it pans out, will spur the development of feeder squid farms.
And no cephalopods were harmed in the making of this dental rinse.
The next steps
Jokerst’s research was done on pig jaws.
He now has approval for a pilot program on humans, which means the team will recruit five to 10 healthy people in the San Diego area.
Future work includes collaborating with dentists, alleviating the salty, bitter taste of the oral rinse (lots of mint, he thinks), and replacing laser lights with inexpensive, more portable light systems like LEDs.
There’s a long road between excitement in the lab and a practical, affordable system.
The American Dental Association expressed guarded interest in Jokerst’s work: “While it’s exciting to see work being done to improve the tools dentists work with, it is too early to tell if this technology will fulfill its promise of a better method for evaluating patients’ gums.”
And Jokerst acknowledged from the get-go that the new system, if it pans out, won’t work for everyone.
Among those who aren’t good candidates are people with an allergy to iodine and Orthodox Jews.
Some professional questions
There’s some skepticism out in the field, too.
Dr. Mazen Natour, DMD, is a prosthodontist — an expert in the restoration and replacement of teeth — in practice in New York.
“In theory this is a great idea,” he told Healthline.
But he has a list of unanswered questions.
“I understand that the rinse heats up in the mouth. How much? Is it safe? Does it harm human tissue? The swelling creates pressure in the gums. How does this compare to the pain of a dental probe?” he asked.
Natour also suspects the new technology is going to be expensive.
“Who can afford it?” he asked. “We all always want the best for our patients.”
Natour sees another potential problem.
“The mouth is a very small area,” he said. “Unfortunately, it has both hard and soft tissue. And it’s U-shaped, not an easy shape to work with.”
Despite these caveats, Natour is sufficiently intrigued and is planning to keep track of the project.
“We all want our patients to be comfortable, and in theory this is a great idea,” he said.