Subscribe for 17¢ / day

COMP-Northwest partners with Oregon State University are researching comparative anatomy with pigs to develop a procedure that would remove human wisdom teeth before they develop

LEBANON — Ask anyone over the age of 25 if they have had their wisdom teeth removed and many will grasp their jaw as they recount a painful tale.

But research being conducted by the College of Osteopathic Medicine-Northwest in Lebanon, the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine and TriAgenics, a Eugene company, may make the removal of wisdom teeth — officially the third molar — a thing of the past.

Studying live pigs, Dr. John Mata, associate professor of pharmacology at COMP-Northwest, and Dr. Leigh Colby, a Eugene dentist, are using microwaves to halt the growth of wisdom teeth long before they try to emerge.

Mata is also working with OSU assistant professors John Schlipf and Susanne Stieger-Vanegas.

They envision a procedure that could take only a few minutes in a dentist’s office and eliminate surgery for most of the millions of Americans who have their wisdom teeth removed each year.

“So far, we’ve worked with 24 pigs,” Mata said, as technicians at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine pushed a cart carrying a full-grown, sedated pig into a CT scan room. Its legs trussed with rope, the pig was turned onto its back and its jaw scanned with a high-definition 3D CT system — short for computed tomography — which produces an extremely clear image.  

Mata said the pigs come from a Philomath-area farm.

Research assistant Katie Stiglbauer said the pigs usually come to the project at four months of age and testing begins about a month later.

“We take their first CT scan then and we make dental impressions,” Stiglbauer said.

Yes, they use the same gooey stuff found in a regular dental office.

It takes about two weeks for the impressions to return from a lab and by then, the pigs are the comparable age of a 10-year-old child in terms of tooth development. Mata said it took about a year to determine the time correlation of tooth development between pigs and humans.

The treatment is applied to one jaw of the pig and the other jaw is used as a control.

Researchers use the dental impression to create a custom surgical guide that will allow a dentist to place the tip of the microwave tool precisely over the tooth bud in a human mouth.  

Mata describes the probe as a “Dremel tool with a curved wire hanging out of it.”

Mata said precision is the key and that’s what makes the custom guide formed from the dental impression so vital.

“This will allow the dentist to place the probe precisely where it needs to be, even if the patient moves,” Mata said.

The tool’s tip must be within plus or minus one-quarter of a millimeter in the tooth bud.

Microwaves are emitted through a thin wire and the bud is ablated — burned — much like a microwave heats food in one’s kitchen.

Each pig goes through five CT scans before they are euthanized and their jaws dissected by Dr. Brion Benninger’s anatomy staff at COMP-Northwest.

The tooth at this point has not formed, but is in a pre-calcified tissue state.

The project has been funded by a $40,000 grant from the Erkkila Foundation and was recently awarded another $450,000 from the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute to run through the end of this year.

“Before this can go out to the general public, it will cost $10-15 million to get through FDA approval,” Mata said.

Although Mata is on the staff at COMP-Northwest, he spent nine years with the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, specializing in pharmacology, natural products and polymers.

Benninger said Mata’s connections with Oregon State have created a pathway of cooperation between the two schools for other research projects, including work on an anchoring system for dental braces that would eliminate the need to wear headgear at night.

“This work with comparative anatomy is an excellent opportunity and leads the way for many other projects,” Benninger said. “Dr Mata brought me on board a year ago. We first started collaborating using the pigs to teach the student surgical club here at the medical school, of which I am its adviser. Then he invited me to work with the tooth ablation research. I am a clinical head and neck anatomy expert and have published many articles in the Journal of Oral Maxillofacial Surgery.”

Wisdom teeth come in for most people between the ages of 17 and 25. They are the last teeth to develop and for many people, have a difficult time breaking through the gum tissue.

When the tooth can’t break through, it is known as a being “impacted” and that’s when they are surgically removed.

If not removed, they can lead to infection, damage to nearby teeth and the formation of cysts.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, there are about 10 million third-molar extractions annually, about half of which require surgery.

Alex Paul is the Linn County reporter for the Democrat-Herald. He can be contacted at 541-812-6114 or