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The AAE interviews member Dr. I-Ping Chen about her recent  success!

AAE Member Dr. I-Ping Chen and her co-investigator, Dr. Ki Chon, recently received a NIH grant to develop and test a smartphone app sensor that detects tooth pain. Dr. Chen is an associate professor of endodontics at the Department of Oral Health and Diagnostic Sciences and Dr. Chon is Professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the UConn School of Dental Medicine. Dr. Chen and her team received a total award in the amount of $462,964 from the National Institutes of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) toward their endeavor. AAE staff interviewed her about this incredible development, as a part of its ongoing series of Member Spotlights. AAE integrated communications specialist Michael Dobrow recently interviewed Association member Dr. Chen.

Can you tell us a bit about this tool you and your team intend to design and how it may help endodontists and their patients?

Determining dental pain in an objective manner is not only important when it comes to prescribing the correct pain medication but more so when we as endodontists have to diagnose endodontic infection in patients who cannot communicate well. Such groups of patients include young children, patients with certain disabilities or patients with a language barrier. Current diagnostic tests rely heavily on patient response, which is subjective and can be problematic.

Our team aims to identify a novel tool which can quantitatively measure dental sensation/pain. Chen learned that Chon had used a commercially available device in his lab that can detect the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the system that registers pain. The device is currently used to detect the conductivity of skin—which has the potential to reflect the effects of changes in pain level on a patient. However, nobody has thought of testing its use to quantify dental pain. The other aim of our study is to miniaturize the commercially available device and develop a smartphone-based sensor and application that works with the device.

Once you receive the grant monies, and broadly speaking, what are the next steps for you and your team?

We devised a clinical study to determine the suitability of electrodermal testing for dental pain in our Endodontics Clinic at UConn Health. This is the first step. The second part of the project is to miniaturize the measuring device. Right now the device is the size of a laptop and the goal of the engineers is to reduce this system to a smartphone app. The quality of testing results from the miniaturized device will need to be thoroughly tested. We expect that we can do this all within the next two years.

In the future we hope that the patient can report post-treatment pain from their home, the dentist will receive the data and can adjust pain medication accordingly. This application is beyond the scope of the current R21 project and will need a lot more work for quality assurance and regulatory approvals.

Are similar tools already available? If so, how may your tool improve upon those?

The device is already commercially available but because of its size it is not suitable for use by patients. We expect that measurement via smartphone app could lead to widespread use by dentists in their private clinics.

What was the grant application process like?

Writing a grant proposal is always stressful even if you think you have a really good idea and good methods and tools to achieve your goals. Because this project involved two very different fields, namely dentistry and engineering, we had to adjust dental and technical terminology so that NIH reviewers from both fields could understand the significance and future potential of the project. Part of the preparations for the grant was also to obtain human subjects approval, which is a very rigorous process itself.

Can you tell us how you learned of the award announcement and what your reaction was?

Because of new regulation of NIH funded human study and the impact of COVID-19, the award announcement was delayed and we were very relieved once we got the final approval. First I shared the good news with my colleagues and my second thought was to begin with the organization of the clinical study.

Grant application processes can be trying, is there any advice or tips you’d like to share with fellow AAE members?

Everybody’s situation is of course different. For my part I do a lot of reading, develop ideas that I believe are novel and feasible and then find good collaborators. I listen to critiques and suggestions of colleagues when sharing my ideas and plans. I believe it is important to find the right funding mechanism, sometimes this means to look for foundation funding to start a pilot project.