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That's as it should be, explains East Setauket, N.Y.-based restorative and cosmetic dentist Terry Shapiro. "The research is in its earliest stages and will be fascinating to watch as it develops," Shapiro says. "In the 25 years that I have been in dental practice, many technologies, including laser dentistry, digital radiology, and composite materials, have revolutionized how we practice."

Most of the estimated 5 percent to 15 percent of adults who suffer from what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders terms odontophobia begin to fear the dentist during childhood. For that reason alone pediatric dentist Santos Cortez, who currently chairs the Long Beach (Calif.) Children's Oral Health Task Force, cheers the prospect of a plasma dental brush.

Citing tooth decay as "the most chronic health problem in children ages 1-17 years," Cortez maintains that more children miss school for problem teeth than for any other reason.

With its ability to reduce fear, the plasma brush "would be wonderful for pediatric dentistry," he adds. "One of the most frightening issues for children is the noise of the drill."

To date, lasers have been the quiet alternative to the 500,000-rpm drills that whir their way into the teeth -- and consciousness -- of the children that Cortez, a past president of the California Society of Pediatric Dentistry, sees every day.

But lasers, Cortez explains, correct only minor to moderate decay and "cannot be used to perform many of the latest treatments." What's more, they do little to improve the composite-tooth bond. As in adult dentistry, this is one of pediatric dentists' "biggest, biggest concerns."

To drive home his point, Cortez relates the 2007 case of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver, a Prince George's County Maryland boy who died earlier this year after an abscessed tooth spread an infection to his brain.

"His mother didn't have the eighty dollars or insurance that would have paid for a simple tooth extraction," Cortez says. "That's how important filling a cavity can be."

Fortunately, "important" doesn't have to mean costly. The plasma brush is "extremely economical," Yu says. "No complicated and expensive equipment is needed." With any budding technology, great economics is one giant step toward widespread adoption. So is good data, and "we have very good preliminary data," Li explains.

This is all good news to Daniel Noor, who prides himself on looking toward the future for "safe, sound, innovative techniques" that will "improve my patients' lives." In 10 years, if all the right factors are in place, use of the plasma brush, Noor says, "could be very widespread."

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