Nanotechnology company starts producing dental product

Nanova Biomaterials, a research and development company that uses nanotechnology to manufacture dental and orthopedic devices, has started mass producing a tooth varnish at a new plant in Columbia.

StarBright fluoride dental varnish, Nanova’s first product, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in late September.

Nanova Biomaterials, an offshoot of Nanova Incorporated, hopes to get FDA approval of several more products within the next year that use with nanotechnology, which means materials are modified at molecular and atomic levels.

Hao Li, the president and co-founder, said having a strong team of doctors, scientists and engineers has helped the company get started.

Li is also an associate professor at the University of Missouri College of Engineering, where he runs the Nanostructured and Biomedical Materials Laboratory. Li said his background in academia has helped him create and cultivate new technology.

“As a professor …  I can get friends, colleagues developing cool things together,” Li said. “It’s very easy for me to communicate with other professors as a professor. So if they have good technology I know how to talk to them, how to approach them.”

Li said his company, founded in 2007, struggled to get funding for the first few years. But in 2013, Nanova Biomaterials received $7 million from Chinese venture capital firm SummitView Capital to produce dental products including absorbable bone screws. The company also qualified to receive incentives worth more than half a million dollars from the Missouri Quality Jobs program if it meets job creation and investment criteria.

Nanova held a groundbreaking ceremony on Oct. 30 at its  6,000 sq. ft. $1.5 million facility, which includes a research and development lab, production area, and office space.  The company expects to create up to 50 new jobs within the first five years, according to a Department of Economic Development news release.

The sodium flouride tooth varnish is designed to reduce cavities and dentin sensitivity. The varnish contains fluoride ions that react with calcium and phosphate ions in saliva to form crystals that protect root surfaces from hot or cold substances, according to the FDA application.

Other tooth varnishes on the market also contain fluoride, but Nanova asserts that StarBright exposes the teeth to more fluoride faster.

Andrew Ritts, a senior research scientist for Nanova, said that in a comparative experiment with a top-selling varnish, every gram of StarBright varnish released 2,400 micro grams of fluoride within four hours, while the other varnish released 200 micro grams.

Ritts and his colleagues are now preparing to apply for FDA approval of a new dental composite that would be used to fill cavities. It contains nanofibers, which are thousands of times thinner than hair, to increase the strength while maintaining the ease of polishing. Traditional materials need to sacrifice strength to improve handling properties, Ritts said.

Nanova researchers and scientists from the UMKC School of Dentistry and the University of Tennessee-Memphis are also working on commercializing what’s called an atmospheric cold plasma brush, according to the Missouri Business Development Program at MU.

Non-thermal plasma, which is a partially ionized medium like gas generated by electrical discharge, contains energetic electrons, ions, chemically reactive radicals and ultraviolet; these plasma components rapidly destroy harmful microorganisms and have enormous potential in dentistry. Clinical trials with the brush have already been conducted.

The company faces competition from other, larger developers like 3M. However, Li said he views the competition as more of an opportunity for collaboration.

“We and our competitors are working together to deliver better products to the industry, to doctors and patients,” Li said. “But in the meanwhile we want to do better and better.”

For now, Li said his goal is to start bringing in revenue. Sales of the tooth varnish, by prescription and not over the counter, are expected to start by the end of this year.

“Right now we are pretty good at burning money,” Li said. Besides spending money on the new facility and equipment, the company is investing in highly educated employees. “We hire quite a few Ph.Ds and people with master degrees,” Li siid. “They have pretty high salaries.”

Ritts said creating products that can change health care is a satisfying way to work with new technology.

“Getting something FDA approved is one step,” Ritts said. “But also improving patients’ lives and finding something that can make a doctor’s life easier when they’re working with a patient … is a great sense of accomplishment if we’re able to achieve that.”

Li says in the long term he hopes to expand the company’s reach into different medical areas.

Now that StarBright is in production, he wants to secure Nanova Biomaterials in the dental materials market.

“We just want to take up small percentage of market share — that will be good enough for us at the very beginning,” Li said. “But eventually we want to grow big. We think it’s to the patients’ benefits to have our products used by more people.”

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