Although it’s very preliminary, researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science have announced that they used lasers to stimulate stem cells to form dentin inside the mouth of living test subjects.
If this work continues to advance, it may mean that instead of placing a filling, dentists will simply access the stem cells contained in your teeth and stimulate them to do what they’ve already done once before: grow your teeth.
Although there have been many announcements about the possibility and even reality of creating tooth material using stem cells, these efforts have all been conducted in laboratory settings outside the body.
But this new technique is different. It doesn’t require the removal and processing of stem cells and it can generate new material in your mouth. The researchers used a laser and certain growth factors to encourage the stem cells to grow in the mouth into dentin, the hard material that makes up most of your tooth. It is between the tooth enamel and the tooth nerve, and is very similar to bone in its composition.
Researchers had drilled the teeth of rodents to access the stem cells in their molars, then exposed them to low-level lasers, then put dental crowns on the teeth. After about 12 weeks, they confirmed that the rodents were regrowing their dentin.
Of course, there are many obstacles to overcome before this treatment can be utilized by your dentist. The regrowth is apparently quite slow, and it depends on accessing and exposing the tooth pulp, which means it’s not something you would want to do for a routine filling, though it might be useful for some serious cavities in which the tooth pulp was already compromised and wouldn’t have to be drilled into. If this were being used as a root canal treatment, the infection would have to be controlled in ways that would preserve enough of the pulp material to grow back the dentin.
And, of course, we don’t know if this procedure would actually work on humans. Although the structure of the molars is very similar, and human teeth also contain stem cells, it’s possible that our stem cells would not respond in the same way. And we don’t know whether we’ll be able to generate enamel the same way we’re generating dentin.
Still, although many technical challenges remain, this is an exciting possibility for future dentistry.
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