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Researchers Determine Best Ways to Decrease Aerosols Amid Pandemic

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A collaborative effort between University of Minnesota (U of M) researchers and clinicians made a real-life, immediate impact on patient care and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Courtesy of University of Minnesota SOD

“Without this expertise, I don’t believe our clinics would have opened up as soon as they did,” said Paul Olin, D.D.S., M.S., Interim Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs at the U of M School of Dentistry (U of M SOD), of the project. 

It all started in March 2020, when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz halted all non-emergency dental procedures.

“In some respects, that did us a favor,” Dr. Olin said. It allowed him to take a step back and think through the risks of what he’d begun to suspect was an airborne pathogen. “We knew our existing PPE protected us from blood borne pathogens,” he continued, “but what about this new virus?”

Dr. Olin connected with Paul Jardine, Ph.D., a Professor in the Department of Diagnostic and Biological Sciences, and other experts, including: 

  • Rachel Uppgaard, D.D.S., Assistant Clinical Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery; 
  • John Madden, CDT, Allied Health Care Professional;
  • Brent Larson, D.D.S., M.S., Director of Orthodontics and Professor of Developmental and Surgical Sciences; and 
  • Jeremy Anisman, Ph.D., Molecular Virology Researcher.

The team began to tackle a series of questions together: How does the COVID-19 virus spread throughout a dental office? What instruments make that spread worse? And what can we do to protect ourselves and our patients? 

Courtesy of University of Minnesota SOD

Dr. Jardine used a nebulizer to aerosolize harmless bacterial viruses, bacteriophages, and studied their spread and capture by suction and air filtration devices. Dr. Olin, along with Gary Anderson, D.D.S., M.S., Professor of Developmental and Surgical Sciences who studies clinical measurement, and Judy Danielson, M.D.H., a Professor of Developmental and Surgical Sciences, simulated the dental environment by performing various procedures with high- and low-speed handpieces on a mannequin. U of M School of Engineering faculty Qusheng Ou, Ph.D., Jiarong Hong, Ph.D., and David Pui, Ph.D., used digital inline holography and laser sheet imaging to study aerosol flow throughout these procedures and the effectiveness of mitigation devices.

They found that an extraoral local extractor did the best job of decreasing aerosols that may transmit viruses while also being fairly simple to use. They plan to publish the results of their study, which have already been implemented in the U of M’s dental clinics.

Drs. Olin, Jardine and Anderson saw this project as a unique opportunity to work across disciplines.

“We’re two extremes,” Dr. Jardine explained. “Dr. Olin and Dr. Anderson are very clinically focused. Most of the people I talk to on a daily basis are structural biologists and biophysicists. That diversity led to incredible opportunities.”

Dr. Olin agrees, noting the study’s immediate clinical impacts. “The only way I could have justified the purchase of the mitigation devices I did, and be confident that they would work, was to work with Dr. Jardine to test them.”  

For Dr. Anderson, the experience reflected the root of impactful research. “There was a real practical question we were wrestling with: How do we make sure we’re safe?” The ability to bring engineers, basic scientists and clinicians together to answer that question was “pretty astounding,” he said. 

And it was a remarkable experience in putting impactful solutions into place quickly. “I typically expect the investment of my work to pay off in 10 to 20 years,” said Dr. Jardine. “This ability to work with people from different skill sets and focus on a critical issue with clinical faculty who took charge of the situation was really exciting.” 

“I’m very proud of our school, because of how we responded so effectively and quickly, with full dedication to our mission: to provide the safest environment we can for our patients and staff,” Dr. Jardine said. 

Courtesy of Molly Cruitt, Communications Manager at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry

 Published on May 12, 2021

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