- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Here are a few gadgets we might see in the near future: A where-did-I-put-my-teeth smartphone app to locate dentures equipped with special antennas. A hands-free car wash for your teeth. A robotic toenail trimmer.

It sounds like fodder for late-night infomercials, the Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/2iVkybt ) reported.

But research on these devices is being conducted by scientists in a Shoreview company who typically work on aerospace projects.

The projects are also backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money from federal health agencies. And a University of Minnesota professor is helping out because the devices have the potential to solve some troublesome problems for the elderly, people with motor skill ailments and their caregivers.

The projects are being conducted by Advanced Space and Technology Research Labs, a six-person aerospace research and development company run out of a former single-family home north of St. Paul.

Suneel Sheikh, company founder, CEO and chief research scientist, is a specialist in GPS technology. He founded ASTER Labs in 2004.

The company sells nanosatellite components for spacecraft the size of a Kleenex box and does research in spacecraft and aerospace vehicle navigation, working with government agencies like NASA and the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

It also has been doing work in “medical and terrestrial” projects involving personal navigation. That has included designing devices that would help a firefighter find his or her way through a smoke-filled building or help track the location of dementia patients before they wander out of a health care facility.

ASTER Labs is also collaborating with Stephen Shuman, a professor and director of the Oral Health Service for Older Adults Program at the University of Minnesota’s School of Dentistry.

They’re working on a project that aims to solve a problem that has long vexed older dental patients: Where did my dentures go?

Dentures frequently go missing in long-term care facilities housing people with dementia, according to Shuman.

The false teeth get wrapped up in napkins at meals and tossed in the trash, or they end up in the laundry or they mistakenly are taken by a patient wandering into the wrong room.

“I’ve had nurses tell me they’ve found them in potted plants,” Shuman said.

Shuman remembers being a young dentist two years out of dental school in 1984 and going to work at a nursing home in Illinois. The director of nursing brought out a bucket full of dentures that had gotten misplaced and mixed up.

“Anything you can do with these?” she asked Shuman.

“They didn’t know whose was whose,” he said.

It has since become standard practice to put an identifying label on dentures to keep them from getting mixed up. In Minnesota it’s a state law that all new dentures have to be labeled and that labels should be added when people are admitted to nursing homes, Shuman said.

But that still hasn’t solved the problem of dentures getting lost and accidentally thrown away. When that happens, the cost to replace the dentures can run up to $3,000 or more.

There’s also stress, tension and finger-pointing between the resident, the resident’s relatives and facility staff when dentures get lost at an elderly care facility, according to Shuman.

“People will even sometimes come in and say someone stole them,” he said.

And it may be hard for an older adult, especially those with cognitive impairment, to adapt to a new set of dentures.

“This has been rolling around in my head for 30 years,” Shuman said of the problem of lost dentures. “If you can find a satellite in outer space, you should be able to find a denture in a nursing home.”

Some prior attempts to solve the problem involved embedding a radio ID chip into a denture, similar to the systems used to identify lost pets.

But that technique requires bringing a detecting sensor fairly close to the denture to get a reading, which would not help if a denture was lost in a large building.

ASTER Lab’s proposal is to embed a tiny antenna in the denture that would be tuned to respond to a specific frequency.

The antenna would be passive and safe to the wearer, requiring no power inside the denture.

But if the denture got lost, the care facility would use a small, handheld detector wand that would be connected to a smartphone app.

The detector would emit a low-frequency radio wave that would be reflected back from the antenna in a missing set of dentures. Then the smartphone application would guide the caregiver to the area in the building where the dentures are hiding.

Sheikh said the same sort of passive antenna technology is being put in patches on ski clothing to help guide rescuers to people buried in avalanches.

The idea has received a grant of about $200,000 from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The first step will be to develop a prototype.

If that’s successful, the next step would be a $1 million clinical trial of the device at the U’s dental geriatrics teaching clinic directed by Shuman at the Walker Methodist senior housing campus in Minneapolis.

If everything goes smoothly, the system could be ready for production in two or three years, with the antenna adding a few dollars to the cost of dentures and the detectors costing a few hundred dollars.

Shuman and ASTER Labs have another government grant of about $200,000 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create a device intended to help the elderly or other people with ailments that make it hard for them to grasp and use a toothbrush.

The official name is the Automated Dental Care Device for Persons with Oral Hygiene Disabilities.

But Shuman suggests that you could think of it as a miniature car wash for your mouth.

Shuman and ASTER Labs envision a hands-free mouthpiece that could be inserted into your mouth. A set of little brushes in the mouthpiece would then start moving, cleaning all of your teeth at once.

The mouthpiece could be attached to a station that could pump a fluoride solution or other agents in and out of the mouthpiece. Sensors would adjust the firmness and speed of the bristle motion and wirelessly transmit information to caregivers, including warnings about any problems. LED lights would indicate when your teeth were cleaned.

Shuman and Sheikh said the device could significantly reduce the effort required by caregivers in the difficult chore of manually brushing the teeth of disabled individuals.

And people with conditions like cerebral palsy or strokes or Parkinson’s disease might be able to use the device on their own to clean their teeth more effectively.

“There’s an autonomy issue,” Shuman said. “No one likes to have other people doing things for them.”

Shuman said there’s a severe shortage of caregivers, so “anything we can do to make caregiving easier and more effective through technology is a blessing for everyone involved.”

Sheikh said if testing on the device is successful, it would be produced to sell for a few hundred dollars. He thinks it would have benefits for able-bodied users who aren’t sure if they are brushing their teeth right.

“I’m hoping this will change our model for cleaning our teeth,” he said. “We’re looking forward to trying it ourselves.”

There’s one other device being developed by ASTER Labs aimed at helping the elderly: a hands-free robotic toenail trimming system.

According to ASTER Labs, an estimated one-third of people over the age of 65 are physically unable to cut their own toenails because of problems with reduced flexibility, diminished eyesight and manual dexterity.

Older people who aren’t able to take care of their feet and toenails experience a heightened “risk of injury, pain, infection, and other complications,” along with a reduction in mobility and greater chance of falling, according to ASTER Labs.

Even if patients can get their toenails trimmed at a podiatry clinic, many people don’t like the experience of having their feet handled or are embarrassed undergoing the procedure, said Chuck Hisamoto, ASTER Labs research scientist.

“Nail-related Medicare coverage equates to an estimated $96.8 million each year, and frequent professional non-Medicare-covered nail cutting services become increasingly costly and inconvenient for seniors,” according to the company.

ASTER Lab’s proposed solution, which it is developing with a $200,000 grant from the National Institute on Aging, is a hands-free device that you could put your foot into.

Optical and infrared cameras and ultrasonic sensors would then guide a rotary burr to gradually pare away excess toenails.

Sheikh said it would work similar to the Dremel tool he uses to trim his cat’s toenails, except the system would be automated.

The imaging technology would be an adaptation of work ASTER Labs is pursuing with collaborators to develop an automated system to measure the density of leaves and fruit clusters in vineyards to determine the best time for pruning. But instead of identifying grapes, the machine vision would be looking for toes.

There would be safety features in the toenail trimming device to immediately stop the machine if desired by the patient or if the person’s toes moved.

If the high-tech toenail trimmer comes to market, it would cost a few hundred dollars, according to ASTER Labs.

The ASTER Labs scientists see it being used in elder care facilities, but they also think it could be bought by individuals who want to use it in their own homes.

“We try to take things in your daily life that can become difficult due to aging or disability and produce devices to help you become more independent,” Sheikh said.

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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