CORVALLIS, Ore. – Some of the same methods used to build safe, sturdy engines might soon be able to help your doctor or dentist tell whether that cracked tooth or stress fracture needs attention.

Bioengineers at Oregon State University say there is good promise that “Kitagawa-Takahashi diagrams,” a method used for some time in engineering to help explain whether or not a tiny crack is going to eventually cause catastrophic failure, may have applications in medicine.

“People have tiny cracks in their tooth enamel and bone structure all the time; it’s pretty routine,” said Jamie Kruzic, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at OSU. “And in engineering, we’ve been using specialized methods for decades to help us understand things like metal fatigue, the cracks or failures that can develop after repeated, high stress movement of certain components. We believe those findings can be used in medicine, because the stresses and material behavior are fairly similar.”

In a new publication in the Journal of Biomedical Materials Research, Kruzic and colleagues at the University of California-Berkeley outline how these engineering concepts may be relevant to human anatomy.

“When we can tell a dentist exactly what type of tooth crack is most apt to get worse and needs preventive treatment, and which doesn’t, that could improve patient care and save money,” Kruzic said. “We have 3-D imaging of teeth that is being improved every year. We could utilize these tools better in dentistry and orthopedics if we understood what the images were telling us.”

The studies are looking at initial crack sizes in teeth and bones, and trying to develop predictive tools about which ones will grow, and which will be harmless. Engineers can already do this with some accuracy when it comes to building or maintaining a jet airplane engine, but the science is still in its infancy when it comes to human health.

“This work still has a ways to go before we can make definitive predictions for medicine,” Kruzic said. “But in theory it should work, and it will be an exciting advance.”

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Jamie Kruzic,