Squid Ink to Diagnose Gum Disease? Now We’ve Heard Everything

As anyone who’s checked their patients for gum disease knows, a periodontal probe doesn’t lead to the most comfortable of dental experiences. This lack of comfortable diagnostic tools has led a team of engineers at UC San Diego to attempt to find a less painful, more consistent way to discover pockets in the gums that indicate a patient has gum disease. And their target tool for the job may surprise you.

For most of us squid ink is simply the substance squids expel when stunned or startled as a defense mechanism to help them escape from harm’s way. For others it’s a delightful addition to a pasta dish. But how many of us would ever think that squid ink could someday be used in dentistry?

Probably not too many if we had to venture a guess.

But that’s just what a team of engineers at UC San Diego are researching—and so far their results are promising for the use of this firmly non-traditional dental material. As reported in an article on the Aegis Dental Network, after nanoengineering professor Jesse Jokerst left a less-than-comfortable dental appointment where his gums were probes for signs of gum disease he realized that the current method of diagnosing this common dental issue could use some upgrading.

Instead of continuing to rely on periodontal probes to diagnose gum health (which can be both painful for the patient and can lead to varying results because of their being able to only measure one pocket at a time and tendency to lead to different results depending on the pressure applied to it by the dental professional), Jokerst and his team have proposed using a mixture of food-grade squid ink, water and corn starch.

This mixture when used as a rinse in the mouth acts as a contrast agent for photo acoustic ultrasound, which is an imaging technique that “involves shining a light signal—usually a short laser pulse—onto a sample, which heats up and expands, generating an acoustic signal researchers can analyze.”

When applied to the squid ink mixture it works like this: melanin nanoparticles in the ink get trapped in the pockets between the teeth and gums, they expand when heated up by the laser and create varying levels of pressure in the pockets, and the pressure differences can be picked up and mapped by the photo acoustic ultrasound. The resulting image shows a complete map of the varying pocket depths in the patient’s mouth to indicate any potential problem areas.

So far this process has only been tested on a pig model, but the results were promising. The squid ink method produced comparable results to those provided by a periodontal probe. And what’s more across multiple tests the squid ink results were much more consistent than those of a periodontal probe. This has led Jokerst and his team to be very optimistic about their research.

Their next steps in realizing the full potential of this new technique include collaborating with dentists and testing it on human patients. Based on their current findings it seems more than plausible that squid ink could become an essential part of gum disease screening.