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By his own admission, Neal Gittleman, D.M.D.’78 was not what you’d call the ideal Albright scholar. “I was an awful student,” he says. “I think I suffered from undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. I procrastinated, and I just wasn’t very mature. But the school did prepare me very, very well.”
Thirty-one years and 16 patents later, it’s apparent that Gittleman has made the most of his Albright education. Now a renowned prosthodontist with a highly successful practice in Houston, Texas, he’s dedicated his life to designing and manufacturing dental implants that serve as artificial substitutes for the root portion of missing teeth. Gittleman took a few minutes from his busy schedule to discuss his career.
Q. Why did you choose dentistry?
A. I was a biology major, and one of my cousins suggested that I consider dentistry because it would be a perfect meld for me. It was only four years of school, and it was going to be a nine-to-five job. Who knew that it was going to materialize into what it has? It’s not a nine-to-five job with me; it’s my avocation as well as my vocation. I think about implants and reconstruction all the time. I’m just looking for a better way, an easier way of doing things. I’m not sure if it’s an obsession, but I am sure it’s a disease.
Q. What helped earn you a place in dental school?
A. My dental aptitude test scores were very high. Also, back then I had an invention that propelled my entrance into dental school. Dr. Bell, who was head of Albright’s Biology Department, was looking for a way to anesthetize fruit flies. I figured out a way to do it using an automotive spark plug in an encased vessel. When I pumped air through it, the discharge from the spark plug created ozone, and the ozone anesthetized the fruit flies just as well as ether did.
I put the diagram on my application to the University of Pennsylvania. I was visiting my girlfriend, who was a junior at Penn. I walked in and asked about the status of my application. They said, “Let’s interview you right now.”
Q. How well did Albright prepare you for the dental program at Penn?
A. Albright prepared me quite well. My scientific background is very strong; I apply it all the time. I might have had trouble learning initially, but they taught me and it stayed with me. So dental school was easy compared to my college days in terms of academic stresses.
Q. What can you tell me about your patents?
A. I have 16 patents, plus several more pending. I believe I have more patents than any other dentist currently practicing implant dentistry in the U.S.
Currently I’m working with Sybron Dental Specialties, one of the largest dental companies in the world, to commercially exploit one of the patents. It’s intended for general dental practitioners, not for specialists. It brings down the cost of doing implant dentistry, it’s much more comfortable for the patient, and it takes the mystery out of some of these procedures that at one time were arcane. We hope to launch the product in November.
Most of my other patents aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, because they’re not commercially viable. Unless something is developed within a company, it’s very difficult as an outside practitioner to bring something that’s commercially viable to the market.
Q. What was your first patent?
A. I got my first patent before graduating from Penn. I was in a lecture that I probably shouldn’t have been in. It was in the school of veterinary medicine, where they were talking about using piezoelectricity to heal long bones in horses. I envisioned using the piezoelectrical concept to help stimulate bone growth in the human mouth. I achieved some recognition for my creativeness, but the concept was not adopted by the industry.
Q. What sort of patients do you see?
A. Usually they have difficulty eating. If you have a mechanical issue, you can’t eat a sandwich. I’ve had people who were wearing dentures put wads of cotton underneath the prosthesis to create a cushion between the denture and the soft tissue, to get some kind of relief just so they could chew their food.
So we’re able to help people live a normal life in terms of what they’re able to chew. They don’t have to be selective when they go to a restaurant.
I’ve also seen instances of people with
agoraphobia. They were so embarrassed
about their oral condition that they couldn’t
I’m an architect designing the devices, and I have people in the laboratory helping me. We manufacture everything in our office; nothing gets sent out. There’s a rumor that I treat more implant and reconstruction patients than anyone else in the state of Texas. I don’t know if that’s true, but according to how many parts I order it might be.
Q. Does your work change your patients’ lives?
A. I can’t say that about every
patient we treat, but I would say
maybe five to 10 percent of my
patients’ lives are changed. And
Q. Has the field of prosthodontics changed much since you got started?
A. When I first got involved in the field, the only people who were really doing this were charlatans, and it wasn’t very well documented. Things were going on in Europe that weren’t common knowledge. This was almost 30 years ago, when most people couldn’t distinguish between an implant and a house plant. But eventually the field matured and in the early ’90s started to gain widespread acceptance.
Today there’s a whole body of science, and it’s very interrelated to orthopedic medicine. Everybody’s borrowing from both fields and combining. It’s incredible.
Years ago, if I could just speak of orthopedic medicine, people were very rough with the bones. I like to think that to a large degree they got wise because of what they saw going on in dental medicine, where if you treat the bones carefully and with respect, the implants heal much better. The same thing holds true when you’re replacing a hip. If you measure in millimeters and still cut with a chain saw, it’s just not the same as doing it very precisely.
We’re also growing bone where we couldn’t grow bone before in a predictable fashion. So the advances are startling.
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