Hearty chewing and a winning smile is big business in Europe, as the European market accounts for 42 percent of the global market for dental implants. Dominated by half a dozen companies and valued at around 2.2 billion Euros, analysts consider it an area with significant growth potential, particularly as awareness levels rise and the high-disposable-income baby-boomer generation invest in new dentures.
Taking centre stage in this market is the inventor Per-Ingvar Brånemark, who has been nominated in the prestigious Lifetime achievement category for the 2011 European Inventor of the Year Award, which will be presented on 19 May at a ceremony in Budapest.
The Swedish inventor is being honoured for his work in advancing dental implant technology. Before Brånemark's invention, the loss of teeth - scientifically called ‘edentulism'- marked a significant reduction in the quality of lives of many people. Loss of teeth, as a result of getting old, disease, insufficient oral hygiene or physical trauma had severe consequences in many cases if left untreated. These consequences ranged from difficulty and inability to chew - also potentially leading to other health issues due to altered eating habits - to serious aesthetic disfiguration.
In 1952, Brånemark learned of an experiment at Cambridge University, in which researchers had successfully integrated a titanium chamber into the soft tissue of a rabbit´s ear. Surprisingly, the titanium was not rejected.
Armed with the suspicion that titanium would also not be rejected by human tissue, Brånemark set about performing experiments of his own. In 1965, over decade after hearing about the experiment in Cambridge, he took the huge step towards mitigating the consequences of endentulism by performing his first successful implant with inserts made from titanium on a human patient. There were no adverse reactions; instead, the titanium had practically integrated with the living tissue.
Brånemark never looked back: The Swedish inventor continued to refine his approach into what has become the gold standard of dental implantation globally - a method he dubbed osseointegration (from the Latin "os" for bone).
"What is special about the phenomenon of osseointegration, is that down at the nano level titanium and bone and marrow unite - they unite and you can't break it without using violence. What's more intriguing is that it even works in elderly patients, who are 90 or 100 years old," Brånemark said.
In 1978 - thirteen years after Brånemark's first successful implant on a human - the first step towards the commercial success of his invention was taken when the Swedish Health Authority approved the clinical use of this method.
Working with Brånemark, Swedish defence company Bofors AB began marketing the approved dental technology and launched Nobelpharma AB (now Nobel Biocare) in 1981 as a subsidiary offering dentalcare solutions based on the inventor's patented technologies.
Brånemark's invention and further work in developing osseointegration has contributed directly to Nobel Biocare's success as a global market leader. His patent was the first for this type of technology. Since then, more than 57 patent families - patents issued on the same invention, but applied for in different countries - have been filed by the inventor.
The titanium implants which Brånemark pioneered represent the standard method in dental implantology today, with an impressive success rate of 90-95% over the first two years after surgery, and an astounding 98% over the average lifetime.
"It became clear that once the patents were there, it would raise interest in the technology in a number of countries and make it easier to spread," said Brånemark.
Today, Nobel Biocare and its rival Straumann account for over 40 percent of global market share. Nobel Biocare has established itself as a ‘full solution provider' for restorative and aesthetic dental solutions and builds its business strategy on scientific leadership and innovation.
The firm has introduced numerous innovations in the dental field over the years. It currently employs more than 2,433 staff across the world and has a distribution network covering more than 70 countries. In 2010, net profits amounted to 45.7 million Euros.
Other major players in the industry include Biomet 3i (U.S.A.), Zimmer Dental (U.S.A), Dentsply International (U.S.A., with the development and production of dental implants handled by the German subsidiary Dentsply Friadent) and AstraTech (SWE, subsidiary of AstraZeneca (UK)).
While the European market is the largest with an estimated 4 million implants sold per year, analysts have identified significant growth potential in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries - are growing fastest. This is also reflected by the fact that Brånemark has had 12 patents granted in Brazil and China, respectively.
The Millenium Research Group (MRG) estimates that the global market for dental implants (in terms of market value) is growing at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of about 7% from 2009 to 2014, reaching a double digit-growth by 2014.