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Issue 470, 8 October 2001

Smiles all round for perfect colour match

An ingenious solution to the problem of colour matching teeth has been discovered by colour chemist Professor Stephen Burkinshaw and dentistry consultant Dr Brian Nattress.

Say cheese - Dr Nattress (left) and Professor Burkinshaw demonstrate their digital imaging system

Smiling can sometimes reveal an embarrassing display of teeth, as dental fixtures such as crowns or bridges show up as clearly false amongst our humbly off-white natural teeth.

Traditionally, dentists use just sixteen shades of white to find a match for a patient’s teeth, and they pick the colour by eye. The result is rarely satisfactory and when Dr Nattress approached Professor Burkinshaw to find a solution, they carried out an experiment to see if colour chemists could pick better matches than dentists.

Professor Burkinshaw recalls: “Everyone got it wrong, which just proved that the only way to do an exact colour match was using some form of instrumentation.”

Other instrumental methods had been tried, mostly using spectrophotometers or colorimiters, which have been used for decades to match colours in textiles and paints.

“These instruments use a tiny point of light to take a reading of the colour,” explains Professor Burkinshaw. “That’s fine for a homogenous colour, but teeth are far too complex. We looked at it from a different angle, trying to mimc the way you see other people’s teeth, as that would be the ultimate judge of a correct match. The answer was obvious – photography.”

The researchers teamed up with Olympus, and using a standard digital camera, specially calibrated and with controlled lighting, they set up a system to take a picture of the patient’s mouth. This can then be sent by internet to the dental laboratory, where software prints out a colour ‘recipe’ for the technician. The whole thing is colour corrected at source, to ensure perfect results.

Dr Nattress said: “Clinical trials just completed at the University’s dental institute, have shown the digital photography is a massive improvement on matches by trained dentists. The system is now being marketed on our behalf by the Swiss company, Metalor.”

The technology has potential applications in many other areas, and the researchers have set up a company – DentPark Ltd – through Leeds Innovations to further exploit the potential of their research.

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