Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Orthodontists brace for method that's higher-tech

By Michael Liedtke
The Associated Press

        SAN FRANCISCO — The 100-year-old orthodontics industry is getting wired.

        Backed by $137 million in venture capital, Silicon Valley startup Align Technology Inc. hopes to take a big bite out of an $8 billion industry with a 3-D computer imaging system that straightens teeth without unseemly and uncomfortable metal braces.

[photo] Align Technology President Kelsey Wirth (bottom) and Chief Executive Officer Zia Chishti at their Mountain View, Calif., offices.
(Associated Press photo)
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        “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.

        Align uses a patented high-tech system — called “Invisalign” — that maps out a treatment plan with 3-D computer images.

        Align's technicians then create a series of clear, removable retainer-like molds — called “aligners” — that move teeth with few hassles, little pain and no obtrusive wires or brackets.

        Although they generally view Invisalign as promising, orthodontists who have used the product still 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, Dr. Van Bergen said the product had trouble moving some teeth to the desired position.

        Other orthodontists are concerned about relinquishing so much control over treatment because Invisalign relies heavily on lab work and computers. Success also depends largely on patients' dedication to wearing the removable aligners.

        Susan Andre of Sacramento, who just finished straightening her teeth with Invisalign, said the ability to remove the aligners is one of the best things about it. “It gives you the power to control your pain,” Ms. Andre said.

        Ms. 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 is “like night and day.”

        Sunnyvale-based Align is rolling out a $38 million marketing campaign. Plans for an initial public offering may be filed this week.

        The Invisalign treatment isn't recommended for teens because they often don't have all their permanent teeth and may lack the discipline to wear aligners around the clock.

        Invisalign is expected to be 20 percent to 50 percent more expensive than traditional braces, which typically cost $3,500 to $5,000.

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