Virtual reality ‘dental chair’ system wins awards

The King’s College London Dental Institute is celebrating after an impressive triple win at the prestigious Medical Futures Innovation Awards.

It won two awards for innovations praised by judges for addressing major unmet needs in both dental treatment and dental training, as well as receiving a coveted Special Award that honours one of the Institute’s cutting-edge research teams.

Winning the ‘Best Educational lnnovation’ in the Dental and Oral Health Innovation category was hapTEL, a new virtual-reality, haptic (sense-of-touch) ‘dental chair’ system aimed to teach the next generation of dentists.

The innovation was developed by King’s academics Professor Margaret Cox, Dr Jonathan P San Diego and Dr Barry Quinn, and a team of over 24 clinicians, psychologists, sociologists and cyberneticists, including Professor William Harwin, Dr Alastair Barrow and Brian Tse from the University of Reading.

Using a haptic dental drill and mirror to operate on virtual teeth shown in 3D on a screen, this system allows trainee dentists to reflect what would be seen in real life.

It features a foot pedal to control the speed and settings of the dental drill.

Although there are competitive systems on the market, the hapTEL team’s unique software platform allows the overall unit to sell for up to £20,000 less than the nearest competitor.

Professor Margaret Cox said: ‘We’ve evaluated the hapTEL system in education with over 320 undergraduate and 30 postgraduate students over a two-year period, demonstrating its potential to greatly enhance clinical skills’ development and assessment, thereby having a significant impact on the global dental profession and consequently, the many patients that receive dental treatment.

‘The hapTEL project has already been in discussions with a dental supply company and significant interest has been shown by several other companies.’

Haptics is already widely used in the multimillion dollar computer gaming industry. The technical and educational expertise and knowledge of the hapTEL team will lead to other haptic applications such as therapy for stroke victims, medical applications and educational aids for children with dyspraxia and other learning difficulties.

The hapTEL team, led by Professor Margaret Cox, was bestowed with an additional accolade at the prestigious event, receiving the Special Award for the Best Educational Innovation. This award recognises an individual or team that has demonstrated a novel and outstanding initiative that has made a positive impact in healthcare learning amongst students at any level.

The third award, for the ‘Best Translational Research Innovation’ in the Dental and Oral Health Innovation category, was awarded to the team behind ‘Preventing cavities the SMART way’, an innovative topical gel placed around the teeth to prevent infection with the bacterium Streptococcus mutans, the main cause of dental decay.

The innovation was developed by King’s Professors Charles Kelly, Thomas Lehner and Raman Bedi, and Professor Julian Ma from St George’s, University of London. 

The topical gel is the first pharmaceutical product specifically targeted against the main bacterial cause of dental decay, and judges encouraged the team to pursue commercialisation.  Patented and available for license, the team envisages a dental gel as their first product, followed by a toothpaste as the second generation of product, a market worth in excess of US $9 billion.

Professor Charles Kelly said: “I am delighted that we have won this award. This is the result of many years of multidisciplinary research initiated by Professor Lehner and developed by the team. We believe there is now the prospect of a unique commercial product and we are excited by the potential of making a significant impact on dental disease – the smart way.”

Professor Nairn Wilson, Dean and Head of King’s Dental Institute, commented: ‘The Dental Institute is delighted to be in receipt of three 2011 Medical Future Innovation Awards. It’s pleasing to see our world-leading research teams being recognised in this way, particularly for the Best Educational Innovation Special Award. The Institute looks forward to further developing its links with industry through its cutting-edge research and innovation.’

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