Meet the Ultras

A team from Otago University and Callaghan Innovation are to partner with local technology firms to bring about a revolution in the diagnosis of gum disease.

In early September, the UltraD3 team, headed by Professor Warwick Duncan of Otago University’s Sir John Walsh Research Institute (SJWRI) and Paul Harris, Principal Research Scientist for sensing and automation at Callaghan Innovation, was awarded $1.2M in MBIE Targeted Research funding over three years to develop instrumentation for the early diagnosis of gum diseases using ultrasound.

Gum disease is the sixth most prevalent condition in the world affecting one in three New Zealand adults, and has a strong link to other diseases with high mortality and morbidity. Current diagnosis techniques haven’t changed for a century.

The researchers at SJWRI – New Zealand’s only dental school – are teaming up with Callaghan Innovation to develop the technology using custom ultrasonic 2D array transducers.  The combined teams bring together leading expertise in dental research, 2D array ultrasonic transducer technology, electronics and materials science.

High frequency ultrasound provides a fast and accurate method for detecting subtle changes in the gum at early stages of disease. Early diagnosis will reduce patient discomfort and avoid the expensive surgery associated with gum disease that goes undiagnosed for too long.

Harris says photolithographic processes and advanced materials will be developed at Callaghan Innovation’s Gracefield Innovation Quarter and used to attain the high resolution imaging of the thin gum tissues critical to reliable diagnosis.

The Callaghan Innovation sensing and automation team to work on UltraD3, from left: Paul Harris, Tom Nicolle, Russell Petherick, Peter Bates and Andrew Best.

The Callaghan Innovation sensing and automation team to work on UltraD3, from left: Paul Harris, Tom Nicolle, Russell Petherick, Peter Bates and Andrew Best.

“While such transducer technology is state-of-art, the device also needs to be robust, capable of meeting the requisite hygiene requirements and be manufactured economically.

“The Callaghan Innovation team will also provide the electronics and signal processing to analyse the ultrasound data to determine the underlying tissue mechanical properties.

“The team has experience in developing 2D array technology for a range of applications including, for example, spot weld imaging and laparoscopic (‘keyhole’) imaging.

“We have also done work with very high frequency microscope devices for imaging individual cells.”

Duncan says if the team is to be successful, the scientific research is only half the challenge.

“There are two main challenges to commercialising science: first is the science itself – what does it tell us about the disease we’re seeking to overcome?

“The second is market acceptability. Making your technology understood by the practitioners in a way that adds value to their work. If a practitioner doesn’t know the benefits of the device, they’re not going to pay for it.”

Prof. Warwick Duncan: if a practitioner doesn't know the value...

Prof. Warwick Duncan: if a practitioner doesn’t know the benefits of the device, they’re not going to pay for it.

If a practitioner doesn’t know the benefits of the device, they’re not going to pay for it

If a practitioner doesn’t know the benefits of the device, they’re not going to pay for it

To ensure their work is commercialised and ultimately used to help patients, Otago University will test the market through a practice-based research network.

“That’s the stepping stone. From there, the options are usually to provide the IP to a big firm to make and market the devices themselves, or to partner with local firms.”

In this case, Precision Microcircuits, a New Plymouth based thick film circuit manufacturer, will work with Callaghan Innovation on precision printing of film materials and transducer fabrication steps, and later integration of front-end electronics.

Keeping development in New Zealand will make it easier to partner with companies specialising in dental practice software.

With the combined research and technology development skills at Otago University and Callaghan Innovation, the way gum disease is diagnosed and managed could be about to change forever.

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About Callaghan Innovation

Business. Technology. Success.
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