SAN FRANCISCO -- The 100-year-old orthodontics industry is getting wired: A new company says its 3-D computer imaging system is the key to straightening teeth without uncomfortable metal braces.
Backed by $137 million in venture capital, Silicon Valley startup Align Technology Inc. uses a high-tech system -- called ''Invisalign'' -- that maps out a treatment plan with computer images.
The software allows technicians to create clear, removable retainer-like molds that move teeth with few hassles, little pain and no obtrusive wires or brackets. In typical cases, a patient will wear more than 20 different aligners for two- to three-week periods.
The Invisalign treatment isn't recommended for teen-agers, who make up approximately 80 percent of orthodontics customers. Adolescents often don't have all their permanent teeth and may lack the discipline to wear the aligners on a round-the-clock basis.
While orthodontists generally view Invisalign as a promising new technique, some who have used the product have reservations.
''It's not a cure-all. It's going to be more of a niche product,'' said Dr. Michel Van Bergen, who has orthodontics offices in San Francisco and Fairfield. ''There is also potential for abuse here. There could be more dentists that may try to use (Invisalign) just to make patients look good, but they might not get the bite quite right.''
In his trials with Invisalign, Van Bergen said the product had trouble moving some teeth to the desired position targeted in his treatment plan.
Invisalign is expected to be 20 percent to 50 percent more expensive than traditional braces, which typically cost from $3,500 to $5,000.
Susan Andre, a Sacramento resident who just finished straightening her teeth with Invisalign, said the ability to remove the aligners is one of the best things about the product.
''It gives you the power to control your pain,'' she said.
Andre, 35, wore traditional braces as a teen-ager and signed up for the Invisalign test to straighten teeth that had shifted out of place again. She said the difference between Invisalign and traditional metal braces is ''like night and day.''
Align is targeting the millions of adults who have crooked teeth, but don't bother to straighten them because they don't want metal in their mouth for a year or two. Company research indicates about 50 million U.S. adults between the ages of 25 and 49 wish their teeth were straighter.
''Orthodontics has been in the horse-and-buggy age for a long time now. We are this industry's automobile,'' said Kelsey Wirth, Align's 31-year-old president and daughter of former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth.
On the Net:
American Association of Orthodontists: http://www.aaortho.org
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