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UNLV Researchers Sink Their Teeth Into Outer Space Dental Research

Courtesy Professor Patrick Zhai/UNLV

Devices like this, created at UNLV, are circling the globe in the International Space Station as part of a study of the effectiveness of Colgate-Palmolive dental-health products in zero-gravity environments.

Toothpaste ads promise smiles that are out of this world. Now UNLV is assisting Colgate-Palmolive to put that claim to the test.

Researchers from the College of Engineering and School of Dental Medicine have teamed with NASA and Colgate-Palmolive to find out just how effective the company’s oral health products work in space.

Earlier this month a rocket supplying the International Space Station carried oral bacteria and saliva gleaned from the mouths of 30 UNLV dental clinic patients. The experiments were carried in special kits — which contain 3D-printed, battery-powered microfluidic pump devices — that were developed by university engineering students.

After the samples are returned in July, scientists will study bacterial growth rates and efficacy of the company’s products compared with kits that remained on Earth.

UNLV Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Patrick Zhai, who worked on the project, said that along with learning how to promote dental health in zero-gravity, he hopes the effort will get more students interested in space exploration.

“Along with firefighter and dinosaur hunter, astronaut seems to be on every child’s list of dream jobs,” Zhai said. “Now, my astronaut dream has come true in another way."


Jefferey Ebersole; associate dean of research, UNLV Dental School; Patrick Zhai, professor of mechanical engineering, UNLV


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Christopher Alvarez is a news producer and podcast audio editor at Nevada Public Radio for the State of Nevada program, and has been with them for over a year.