Tougher composite for teeth mimics sticky mussels

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A new type of composite that provides an extra layer of durability to treated teeth gets its inspiration from the way mussels stick to just about any surface.

The potential payoff? Longer lasting fillings, crowns, and implants—and fewer trips to the dentist.

“It’s as hard as a typical dental restoration but less likely to crack,” says Kollbe Ahn, a materials scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute.

On average, a dental restoration lasts five to 10 or so years before needing replacement. The time frame depends on the type of restoration and how well the patient cares for the treated tooth.

However, the continual onslaught of chewing, acidic and hard foods, poor hygiene, nighttime tooth grinding, generally weak teeth, and even inadequate dental work can contribute to a filling’s early demise—and another expensive and possibly less-than-pleasant experience in the dental chair.

One of the primary reasons restorations fall out or crack is brittle failure of the bond with the surrounding tooth, Ahn says.

“All dental composites have micro-particles to increase their rigidity and prevent their shrinkage during their curing process. But there’s a trade-off: When the composite gets harder, it gets more brittle.”

With enough pressure or wear and tear, a crack forms, which then propagates throughout the entire restoration. Or, the gap between the tooth and the restoration results in restoration failures, including marginal tooth decay.

To address the problem, researchers looked to mussels to find a way not only to maintain strength and hardness but also to add durability.

Having perfected the art of adhering to irregular surfaces under the variable conditions of the intertidal zone and evolving to resist pounding waves, the blazing heat of the sun, cycles of salt water immersion, and windy dryness, mussels presented the ideal model for more durable dental restoration materials.

The byssal threads they use to stick to surfaces allow them to resist the forces that would tear them from their moorings.

“In nature, the soft collagenous core of the mussel’s byssal threads is protected by a 5-to-10 micrometer thick, hard coating, which is also extensible and thus, tough,” Ahn says. This durability and flexibility allow the mollusks to stick to wet mineral surfaces in harsh environments that involve repeated push-and-pull stress.

Key to this mechanism is what the scientists call dynamic or sacrificial bonding—multiple reversible and weak bonds on the sub-nanoscopic molecular level that can dissipate energy without compromising the overall adhesion and mechanical properties of the load-bearing material.

“Say you have one strong bond. It may be strong but once it breaks, it breaks. If you have several weaker bonds, you would have to break them one by one,” Ahn says. Breaking each weak bond would dissipate energy, so the overall energy required to break the material would be greater than with a single strong bond.

This type of bonding occurs in many biological systems, including animal bone and tooth. The mussel’s byssus contain a high number of unique chemical functional groups called catechols, which are used to prime and promote adhesion to wet mineral surfaces.

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The new study, that appears in Advanced Materials, shows that using a catecholic coupling agent instead of the conventional silane coupling agent provides 10 times higher adhesion and a 50 percent increase in toughness compared to current dental restorative resin composites.

While previous research has shown this toughening mechanism in soft materials, the new study is one of the first to prove it works with rigid and load-bearing materials.

This proof-of-concept, which also demonstrates no cytotoxicity, could mean tougher, more durable dental fillings. And that, in the long run, could mean fewer dental visits. Because each replacement filling also requires the dentist to file the surrounding tooth to prime its surface, given enough replacements a tooth might need to be crowned or extracted.

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The next step, is to increase the material’s durability even further.

“By changing the molecular design you could have even denser coupling agents that exist on the surface, and then we can have a stronger and more durable dental composite,” Ahn says, adding a commercial product could be available within a couple of years.

Source: UC Santa Barbara