Penn Dental Researcher Receives $2.6M NIH Grant Supporting Development of Next-Gen Dental Implant


High-tech implant would fight gum infection to reduce implant failure rate

Philadelphia — Penn Dental Medicine researcher Dr. Geelsu Hwang has received a large grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support his development of advanced dental implant technology.

Dr. Hwang’s next-generation implant is meant to have a lower risk of implant failure, compared to conventional implants, by preventing the infections that are the top cause of such failures. The five-year R01 grant, totaling about $2.6 million including indirect costs, will fund early tests of the bacteria-fighting properties of the experimental implant.

“This is a very ambitious project, but we believe it represents a new paradigm for implant technology and for oral health care in general,” says Dr. Hwang, an assistant professor in the Division of Restorative Dentistry at Penn Dental Medicine.

Over the past two decades, dental implants have soared in popularity as an alternative to dental bridges and dentures for replacing lost teeth. In the United States, more than five million dental implant surgeries are now performed each year, according to the American Academy of Implant Dentistry. However, at least a few percent of these implants fail within a decade, and about 25% within two decades. The chief reason for implant failure is infection of the nearby gum, which can spread to the bone surrounding the implant, necessitating implant removal.

“The lack of a good seal between the implant structure and the surrounding gum, compared to a natural tooth, means that the risk of peri-implant disease is quite high,” Dr. Hwang says.

Trained as an engineer, he is developing a new type of implant that would combat peri-implant infection in two ways:

Smart Implant

Firstly, the crown—the artificial tooth atop the implant structure—will be suffused with nanoparticles made of a chemical compound that naturally wards off bacteria. Dr. Hwang and his team have been experimenting with the compound barium titanate.

Secondly, the base of the crown, known as the abutment, will contain LEDs that deliver a daily dose of phototherapy to the surrounding gum tissue, giving off light at a wavelength—most likely near-infrared, invisible to humans, Dr. Hwang says—that has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

The LEDs will be powered by piezoelectric material in the crown that converts biting pressure to electrical energy.

Adaptive Antibiofilm Hybrid BTO Composite

The new NIH funding will support tests of the antibacterial properties of the new implant technology, using laboratory cultures of human gum tissue and, ultimately, test implants in minipigs as a preparation for human clinical trials. Dr. Albert Kim at the University of South Florida and Dr. Thomas P. Schaer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine are Multiple Principal Investigators of the grant and Drs. Dana T. Graves and Jonathan Korostoff at Penn Dental Medicine serve are Co-Investigators on this grant.

Dr. Hwang received a National Science Foundation grant last year to support the engineering of the new implant device. Among other research projects, he was awarded an exploratory NIH grant (R21), in April of this year, for studies of a new piezoelectric dental composite material for fillings. The material would generate an enhanced electrical charge at the interface from the mechanical pressure of chewing, and this on its own would inhibit bacterial colonization of the composite surface.

“In principle, we can use piezoelectric materials for many applications in dentistry, including the generation of electricity to speed wound healing and bone regrowth, and even the powering of biosensors that monitor oral health,” Dr. Hwang says.

Dr. Hwang is also a member of Penn Dental Medicine’s Center for Innovation and Precision Dentistry (CiPD). “We are excited about Dr. Hwang’s achievements, and he certainly embodies CiPD’s mission of bringing engineering approaches to advance innovation in dental medicine. He is an engineer and a rising star in dentistry; we are proud of having him on the CiPD faculty team,” says Penn Dental Medicine’s Dr. Hyun (Michel) Koo, co-founder and co-director of the CiPD.

“I’m thrilled to be engaged in CiPD to connect various facets of engineering and dental medicine,” adds Dr. Hwang. “By collaborating with researchers, dental professionals, and other experts in the field, we have the potential to significantly improve the quality of life for individuals by enhancing oral health care and reducing the prevalence of dental diseases.”