Dr. Uri Zilberman explaining dental care to second grade students from Ashkelon at Barzilai Medical Center.Dr. Uri Zilberman isn’t your average dentist.
True, he heads the pediatric dentistry clinic at Israel’s Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, and teaches dentistry at the Hadassah Dental School in Jerusalem. But while pursuing his career in dentistry his diverse interests and endless energy have taken him in some unusual directions – earning scholarly credentials as an anthropologist researching the ancient world – and using his restless inventor’s mind to create devices to move his field forward.
In the coming weeks, Zilberman expects to close a deal which will sell his first major invention – new crowns for children’s baby teeth – to one of the major multinational companies that manufactures dental equipment.
The special pediatric dental crowns developed by Zilberman’s company – aptly named Uri-Dent – have been patented and have been approved by the FDA.
Uri-Dent has been nurtured for the last two years unders the auspices of one of Israel government-funded technological incubators – Ashkelon Technological Industries ltd. (ATI).
Zilberman decided to attack the problem “because crowns in pediatric dentistry hadn’t changed in 40 years. This is the only dental device that hasn’t been changed since the Sixties. Filling materials, root canal treatments, everything else has evolved.”
While custom crowns for permanent adult teeth have become more sophisticated and expensive over the years, damaged children’s teeth are still crowned with a cheaper material because the teeth will eventually fall out. Over the decades, one company has had a monopoly on selling crowns for children.
“They are metal crowns, made with stainless steel that include nickel and chromium, known to be allergens, and which have been taken out of other fillings and crowns. In the US, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has said that nickel should be taken out of any device used in the body. It’s a problem, and I wanted to address it,” he told ISRAEL21c.
In 2001, Zilberman began experimenting with making pediatric crowns from a material called Acetal, a plastic that is engineered for metal-like properties, that has been used in other dental devices.
“So far, there has been not one case report of any toxic or allergic reaction to this material,” he says.
The clear advantage for the consumer lies in the aesthetics – instead of a shiny metal tooth, the child gets a smooth, white enamel-colored crown.
Zilberman immigrated to Israel from Romania in 1966 and graduated from Hebrew University Dental School in 1983.
He confesses that he has always been “a bit hyperactive” and doesn’t really know how to relax.
“For me relaxation is reading a really good professional article, or preparing an important presentation, or inventing something new.”
In dental school, he became intrigued with anthropology and the key role that dental experts play in the field.
“Dentists are important in paleoanthropology, because the clearest evidence available regarding how ancient man lived is through his teeth,” he says.
As he pursued his career in dentistry, he also pursued this scholarly interest, earning a PhD in anthropology from Hebrew University, and pursuing research in collaboration with dental school classmate Patricia Smith. Smith serves today as the Joel Wilbush Professor of Medical Anthropology at Hebrew U and works with Zilberman on researching paleoanthropology in the Laboratory of Bioanthropology and Ancient DNA at the Hebrew University Faculty of Dental Medicine.
Last year, the two anthropologists made the exciting scientific discovery of what is believed to be the oldest evidence yet found of a human hereditary genetic disorder.
Zilberman and Smith, together with Italian and French colleagues published an article in the June 2004 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution that detailed the finding of a disease known as amelogenesis imperfecta in the teeth of a fossil found in archaeological excavations in Ethiopia.
Amelogenesis imperfecta is a hereditary disorder that manifests itself in tooth enamel that is abnormal in structure, low in mineral content and hence subject to rapid wear and chipping. The researchers confirmed the clear presence of the disease in the fossil sample through x-ray and scanning electron microscope analyses.
The fossil they studied is dated as 1.5 million years old and is from a two-year-old Homo erectus child. Homo erectus was a precursor of modern man.
Zilberman says that this was the first recorded evidence from such an early prehistoric period of a hereditary disorder in which the specific genes responsible have been identified.
“It was amazing and incredibly exciting,” he says of the discovery.
But he is just as excited – if not more so – about his contribution to the modern world, as he is of his contribution to knowledge of the ancient world.
He says that before he applied to join the government’s incubator program to develop his idea for pediatric crowns, he funded his own preliminary study. “I needed to be sure it works – I don’t like taking money from my country without being sure I was going to have results.”
In three months, Zilberman’s two years in the ATI incubator will be completed, and he is emerging with bright prospects.
The stainless steel crowns are sold in 72 different sizes – the dentist chooses the size that his closest to the child’s tooth. Zilberman’s prototype set has 24 sizes.
“I’ve tested them on model teeth, they have undergone toxicity and allergenic tests,” he says.
His current step is a small-scale clinical trial. He has contracted with a chain of dental clinics within Israel for use of his crowns.
“It was very important to me to get out of the laboratory and get the reaction of what I call ‘the wet-fingered dentist.’ After all, in the end, we will be selling the crowns to regular dentists, not scientists or specialists. I am happy to say that they have been using them for a month, and the results have been excellent. The dentists have been pleased with how easily they can be used and obviously the parents and the children are very happy with the aesthetics.”
The FDA approval process, he says, was extremely simple, since the material is already being used in other products, and the shape of the crowns he is using are the same as their metal counterparts.
It should be a short time before they are available to American children, he says. “Now we are at the end of our incubator period, we are negotiating with the two major dental companies in the US and one in Europe that both manufacture and distribute these kinds of devices.”
Zilberman lives in the suburban town of Nes Ziona with his wife, children, three dogs and one cat. Don’t expect him to use the money he will earn from his company’s sale to take a long vacation, he warns.
“I’m too restless. I’m always looking for new things and after this is sold, I have a lot of other ideas that have been waiting for the money and the right time.”
Money won’t be an issue – but with his dental practice, teaching and research obligations at Hebrew University, finding the time will still be a challenge.
“I joke that my next incubator project should be research on how to somehow elongate the day beyond 24 hours,” he says with a laugh. “The only thing in life I don’t seem to have enough of is time.”