A technique to copy dentures quickly and cheaply could ease suffering and embarrassment for millions. By Lynn Eaton
With 16 million people wearing dentures in this country, anecdotes about the strange circumstances in which people lose them abound. There's the one about the woman who sneezed so hard that her false teeth fell out and were gnawed by a dog who mistook them for a bone. One man lost his overboard when he was seasick. And another, who was wearing new glasses, misjudged the distance between his mouth and his beer glass, smashing his false teeth in the process.

Most famous of all is the mysterious case back in the 1920s of a full set of false teeth found buried in a blancmange at the Queen's garden party. No one ever traced the owner.

Less amusing, though, is managing without one's gnashers should one suffer the misfortune of losing them. Contact lens wearers usually have a pair of spectacles to fall back on, no matter how much they hate wearing them. But few people have a spare set of dentures. Buying dentures has always been a lengthy, uncomfortable process involving two or three dental appointments and costing as much as pounds 500. So, should disaster strike, most denture wearers have no option than to walk around embarrassingly gap-toothed, resorting to eating baby food until the replacement is ready.

But a new Italian denture-making technique could mean end to the worry of being caught toothless. In a venture reminiscent of selling off-the- peg spectacles, a copy of existing dentures can be made while you wait in under two hours for just pounds 150.

The man behind the scheme is Santo Palazzolo, an Italian dental technician, who came up with the idea after encountering endless cases of lost dentures.

"People were breaking dentures or putting them down somewhere and forgetting where they had put them," he says. "There was an Italian man on holiday in Brazil who jumped from a boat into the sea to show off to his girlfriend and lost his dentures in the process. He had to come back to Italy for a replacement, spoilt his holiday and almost lost his girlfriend, too."

The existing method for obtaining dentures has hardly changed since Victorian times. First, there is the fitting, which involves an initial appointment for an impression, made of a rubber based material, to be taken ("like having a tennis ball put in your mouth," according to one patient). A week or so later, the patient returns to try a wax replica for size. Then comes the final fitting. Some adjustments may still need to be made, even at this stage, and the whole sometimes painful process can take up to a month. The dental technicians have to build the denture by attaching suitably shaped and coloured teeth, ordered from specialist manufacturers, on to the plate.

Most people nowadays would pay privately, with prices ranging from a minimum of pounds 160 up to as much as pounds 500, depending on the quality of the denture. To order a second set simultaneously, the cost would be almost as high. Ordering a spare set later on would involve a whole new fitting because the shape of the mouth changes; it is hardly surprising, given the cost and discomfort, that most denture wearers tend not to bother with a replacement set.

The new system however, set up by Twice (UK) Ltd, Mr Palazzolo's company, means denture wearers can obtain a perfect copy set in just 100 minutes from a licensed "copying centre" or dental laboratory. An impression is taken in rubber of the patient's existing denture and the resulting mould is used to make an exact replica of the original while the customer waits.

Mr Palazzolo's technique is a trade secret, but uses the same acrylic as conventional dentures, only heated under pressure, so it hardens more quickly and gives a tougher finished product. The teeth are made as an integral part of the process, so can be shaded to match any tooth colour. There is a five-year guarantee.

London dentist Peter Gordon, an adviser to the British Dental Association, welcomed the initiative, although he did have some reservations. "It seems an excellent idea. But if you have had a denture for 25 years and it does not fit as well as it did, it may not be the best thing to copy it."

For details of the nearest Twice service, contact freephone 0800 838442