For decades Dr. Ronald Plotka had to coax patients into getting over their fear of the most basic tool of his trade: the drill.
But lately people needing oral care have eagerly sought out the Swampscott dentist because he is among the early adopters of a new tool: the Solea laser, made by Convergent Dental of Natick.
In many cases, the laser means a needle-free, pain-free, drill-free trip to the dentist, as Plotka and others use it in place of a drill to perform routine procedures such as filling cavities and shaving teeth to be fitted for crowns.
“Patients love it,” Plotka said. “It eliminates the fear factor, which helps us do better preventive dentistry because people aren’t going to have that fear of the drill or the needle that they used to have.”
This week, four months after bringing the Solea laser to market, Convergent raised $8 million in venture capital, led by Long River Ventures of Boston, bringing total investments in the three-year-old company to $21.5 million.
The Solea, which retails for $85,000, is the first dental laser to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration for use on both hard tissue, such as teeth, and soft tissue, or gums.
The laser’s rapid pulses of green light — as many as 10,000 per second — not only make cuts but also have a numbing effect, enabling dentists to skip anesthesia in 96 percent of cases, according to Convergent surveys of clients. Patients often feel a slight cold sensation but typically report no pain.
Lasers are not new to dentistry. They are often used to whiten teeth, perform biopsies, and harden fillings.
Convergent also has competition in the quest to replace drills, most notably from Biolase of Irvine, Calif., which makes a laser device called the Waterlase. The Waterlase makes cuts by vaporizing water particles in a targeted area of a tooth and then chipping away at the weakened enamel.
Convergent’s Solea, on the other hand, beams light at a precise wavelength that vaporizes a mineral called hydroxyapatite — a major advantage, according to the company, because tooth enamel is roughly 90 percent hydroxyapatite and only about 5 percent water.
Plotka has used both the Solea and the Biolase at his practice, North Shore Center for Cosmetic Dentistry, and said he prefers Convergent’s device because it enables him to work faster and with greater precision.
The Solea is a finalist in the dental instrument category of the 2014 Medical Design Excellence Awards, a global competition for medical technology. The Waterlase won a bronze medal in the same category in 2012.
Convergent designed the Solea to mimic the look and feel of a drill. Its handheld arm resembles that of a drill, and it even operates the same way — with a foot pedal to control cutting speed.
Convergent chief executive Mike Cataldo said he was so confident dentists could easily transition from the drill to the Solea that he volunteered to be the first test patient last year. Dr. Mark Mizner at Commonwealth Dental Group in Boston used the laser in place of a drill to fill a cavity in one of Cataldo’s teeth and has made the device a staple of his practice since then.
“Here’s the typical reaction of patients: They get up out of the chair, and they go, ‘Oh my God. That was amazing,’ ” Mizner said. “They can’t believe that I just drilled their tooth with no shot and it didn’t hurt.”
The Solea is not a total replacement for the drill — at least not yet. It cannot be used to perform root canals or implants, and in one in 10 cases dentists say they finish laser procedures with a drill, often to smooth rough edges. Even then, however, anesthesia is usually unnecessary because the laser’s numbing effect lingers, much like Novocain itself.
Few dental practices have the new laser, but Cataldo said the new venture funds should help Convergent market the Solea and gain wider adoption. To all the dentalphobics out there, he added that a directory of offices using the laser will be posted on the Convergent website soon.
“What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is take the dread out of dentistry.”
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