The painful drilling and scraping we associate with dental visits may soon be a thing of the past. According to a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers from the King’s College of London have identified a treatment that uses stem cells to regenerate rotten teeth from the inside out. Though only tested in mice thus far, this may one day replace fillings as we know them.
When you get a small crack or hole in your tooth, pulp in the tooth’s center can become exposed or infected, leading to a nasty toothache. In response, stem cells in the pulp create a thin layer of dentin – hard, calcified material found under tooth enamel, which keeps infections at bay. This process is ineffective on larger cavities, which may need intervention from a dentist. Here, they’ll typically drill out the cavity and then pack it with fillings made from artificial materials, like cement or silicone. However, as the London researchers point out, this process isn’t ideal.
As lead author Paul Sharpe said in an interview with The Guardian, “The tooth is not just of lump of mineral, it’s got its own physiology. [Dentists are] replacing a living tissue with inert cement.”
He pointed out that conventional fillings are prone to infection and breakage, and often weaken the tooth over time, which can lead to the tooth needing an extraction after multiple treatments. This new regenerative method which encourages natural tooth repair might solve this issue.
Sharpe and his team bypassed the filling process using the tooth’s own stem cells. They found that certain molecules stimulated stem cell development in the tooth’s pulpy center. One molecule used to boost this process was “Tideglusib,” previously used in clinical trials to treat neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
In the study, the team used biodegradable collagen sponges soaked in low doses of Tideglusib molecules to act like fillings for damaged molars in mice. After six weeks, the sponges had degraded, and the teeth had regenerated new dentin in its place.They also found that Tideglusib stopped the action of enzymes that usually halt dentin growth. In other words, the teeth underwent a complete, natural repair without the need for artificial fillings that might eventually degrade.
Because Tideglusib and collagen sponges are both commercially available and clinically approved, the treatment can be swiftly picked up and used in dental offices.
“Using a drug that has already been tested in clinical trials provides a real opportunity to get this dental treatment quickly into clinics,” says Sharpe. “We’ve deliberately tried to make something really simple, really quick and really cheap.”
However, the technique has only been tested in tiny mouse teeth thus far. For now, the team plans on moving onto rats, which have larger teeth and larger cavities, before moving onto human trials.
There’s still a long way to go before you see stem cell treatments at your local dentist, but many researchers are hopeful that the simplicity of this treatment might lead to dentists foregoing the drill for regenerative treatments in the future.