When orthodontics and technology bring a smile to your face

Craniofacial researcher Dr Mauro Farella loves making people feel confident about their smile.

In technical terms, he focuses on the physiology and pathology of the masticatory muscles and their relationship to orthodontics, craniofacial growth, and temporomandibular disorders.

Dr Farella is based at the University of Otago where he also researches orthodontic braces, craniofacial growth, bone remodelling, and jaw function or dysfunction. He’s also engaged in translational craniofacial research using animal models, including zebra fish, rats, rabbits, and, more recently, sheep. Dr Farella is also a member of MedTech CoRE’s management team.

Like most medical fields, technology offers advances, challenges and risks.

Wearable technologies can be applied to measuring activity of the masticatory muscles when awake or asleep, bruxism and orofacial pain, eating behaviours, smile tracking, continuous measurement of salivary characteristics such as pH and fluoride, smart mouth guards, painless dentistry, radiation-free dentistry, and fast orthodontic treatment.

There is Cone beam computed tomography for medical physicists and dentists, engineer-designed bone titanium screws to improve the efficacy and efficiency of orthodontic treatment, full digital impressions of the month, and CAD/CAM appliances to move teeth using invisible appliances.

Dr Farella says dental work fits perfectly with the rise of personalised medicine, molecular imaging to identify clinically useful biomarkers, and merging these methods with anatomical imaging such as CT and MRI. He sees opportunities for dentistry without pain or radiation, and fast orthodontic treatments.

Technology may also have a role to play in cracked tooth syndromes, bruxism, and so-called jaw joint disorders, dry mouth, and early identification of oral cancer. Dr Farella says technology can lead to new risks, such as oversimplifying clinical procedures to where they can be fully outsourced but without the requisite medical expertise.

But, even with these advances, there are still significant challenges to be overcome.

“Technology is running faster than the ability of academics to match it with good science. There are many products on the market based on state-of-the-art technologies but have a poor scientific evidence base. With better use of new technologies, we’ll see collaborations between orthodontists, bioengineers and computer scientists.”

He says researchers need to carefully skim ideas with strong potential, get input from expert marketers, and then convince companies to come on board.

Dr Farella wants to continue building a multidisciplinary research team in orthodontics and craniofacial research with more research-based participation from bioengineers and computer scientists.

Long-term, he wants his work to contribute to raising the standard of orthodontics as a science and also to raise the profile of orthodontists as craniofacial specialists in New Zealand and overseas.

By Prue Scott

Dr Mauro Farella