Dentists, once labeled the workers who face the greatest coronavirus risk, have new information about how to protect themselves and their patients thanks to research at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC).
Walter Renne, DMD, a professor at the James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine, led a team in testing how well several devices work in preventing saliva from getting into the air during dental procedures, which the researchers called an under-researched area. Along the way, he invented a new device that goes on the market this spring.
“In the dental space, as we work on our patients, oftentimes we generate aerosols, whether you’re running a handpiece, such as the dental drill, or if you’re using special ultrasonic scalers for cleaning teeth, nearly everything we do generates this plume of microscopic particles that are dispersed out into the air,” Renne said.
“In light of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections that spread via aerosol droplets, we were concerned about ways to mitigate that to keep those aerosols from escaping the patient’s mouth during routine dental procedures,” Renne said.
So Renne, who has extensive research experience and holds several patents for dental inventions, got to work.
“We started early on with kind of a research project, just trying to see what items exist on the market already and how well are they doing at mitigating aerosols. We tested a bunch of different products,” Renne said.
That study was exploratory and didn’t try to simulate real-life conditions. But it did give the MUSC researchers a foundation for a more scientifically sound study they hoped would finally give fellow dentists data to show what works and what doesn’t.
Renna then used a 3D printer at the dental school to build a special lip retraction device designed to hook up to the high-volume suction unit that dentists use to suck saliva from patients’ mouths during dental procedures.
“The nice thing about this device is that it’s hands-free, so it hooks up to the patient without having the need for somebody to hold it,” Renne said.
Renne and his colleagues tested the device along with some other devices already on the market. They found that when they used dry-field isolation methods along with high-volume evacuators to suction saliva, they were able to reduce dramatically the amount of spit in the air and on the dentist’s face shield.
“We found that when you use many of these things in tandem with high-volume evacuators, you can mitigate things 100%, or pretty darn close,” said researcher John Comisi, DDS, an associate professor at the College of Dental Medicine, adding that Renne’s device stood out.
“The patented device Wally created is extraordinarily effective. He had a unique way of looking at things,” Comisi said.
Renne’s device also can be made inexpensively, costing around $5, Comisi said. The CAO Group, which makes one of the other devices that did well during the research, picked up Renne’s device for licensing.
Renne said he’s pleased to give dentists another option as they try to work safely during the pandemic and beyond.
“It’s not a magic bullet that’s going to eliminate all aerosols, but it’s definitely going to make the operating space safer,” Renne said.
And knowing that his team’s research finally gives the field better data on safety when it comes to not only his invention but several other devices already in dentists’ offices is rewarding, Renne said.
“We use the universal precautions, of course, and we’ve been doing a good job at mitigating aerosols. It just hasn’t been 100% in the past,” he said.
The study, “Aerosol and Spatter Mitigation in Dentistry: Analysis of the Effectiveness of 13 Setups,” was published by the Journal of Esthetic and Restorative Dentistry.