“When you get removed from your everyday problems, sometimes you can have an idea completely out of the blue,” she said.
In 2009, with a suggestion from her postdoc supervisor, Pfeifer attended a UVA/UVB conference to showcase what they were doing in his lab to industries other than dental. During a session on sun protection for outdoor decks of all things, Pfeifer started contemplating alternative applications of the UVA/UVB coatings in the dental field. While the conference applied to the coatings industry, she said the chemistry is the same as what is used in dental materials. Both applications use photo-polymerization. So she asked herself, “How can I harness this technology and translate it into a biomedical application?”
Pfeifer set to work on designing a new dental resin composite that would improve upon current resin composites on the market by extending the lifetime and durability. Currently, dental restorations, also known as “fillings,” are made from silver amalgam or natural tooth-colored composite resin. Current dental restorations using resin composite last between five to 10 years due to fracture and degradation. The composites are technique sensitive; the quality relying heavily on the hand skills of the dentist and how careful they are in placing the material on the tooth. Pfeifer worked to overcome these inefficiencies, creating a new durable dental composite that is more forgiving, allowing greater resistance. As dental composites are made of two components (an inorganic filler and an organic composition), Pfeifer created an additive that combines into the organic composition, using materials that are more resistant to hydrolysis and crack propagation.
Since 2013, Pfeifer has worked with the OHSU office of Technology Transfer & Business Development to commercialize her invention. Her technology (OHSU ID #1962), “Durable Dental Composites” has been featured twice at OHSU’s MedTech Alliance, a platform for investors, industry representatives, and community partners to stay up to date on early-stage collaboration and investment opportunities at the university. Pfeifer also received a 2015 Bioscience Innovation Award, totaling $45,000, to further develop the technology. Her plan with this funding is to further develop the dental additive to scale up to one-kilogram batches, ultimately creating a working commercial composite prototype. She hopes an outside dental company will license this invention.
Prior to joining OHSU in 2011, Pfeifer served as a research assistant professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. She earned her Ph.D. in dental materials and did her postdoc work in polymer chemistry applied to dental materials. She’s also an endodontist but hasn’t practiced dentistry since 2008.
When asked if she had any advice for future innovators hoping to commercialize their research, she replied, “Wow, I thought I was too young to be giving advice!” She went on to say, “Well, have an open mind because you never know. The story of this invention is that I went to a meeting that had nothing to do with dental applications. I was completely outside of my comfort zone. So have an open mind. I think this is when innovation starts.”