It may soon be more science fact than science fiction. Many researchers around the world are looking at ways to regrow a new tooth where one has been lost. So far the most promising methods being explored begin with stem cells.
A group at Finland’s Institute for Biotechnology has identified a marker for dental stem cells, known as transcription factor Sox2, in mice. It appears that this is the key to the ability of a mouse’s incisor teeth to keep growing continuously. Although human teeth don’t grow continuously, the cells and processes found in mouse teeth form an important basis for developing techniques and methods that could help regrow human teeth. The only hurdle is that we still don’t know how to put them back in the mouth once they have re-grown them in the lab!
In London, scientists are working to develop a procedure that grows teeth from stem cells implanted in the gum. This involves taking live stem cells and growing them in the lab to form a clump of new cells called a bud—similar to when the tooth first formed in the jaw. This tooth bud is then implanted into the gum at the site of the lost tooth. The procedure has already been successfully used with mice and scientists estimate that similar method could be used on humans within a couple of years.
At Columbia University Medical Centre in the U.S., Dr Jeremy Mao, professor of Dental Medicine, has pioneered a tooth-shaped scaffold infused with a growth factor. The scaffold is implanted in the gum, and then the body’s own stem cells are directed into it. Made of natural materials, the scaffold serves as a colonization site for the stem cells, which then grow into a new tooth right in the jaw socket. According to Dr Mao, an entire new tooth can be regenerated in just nine weeks.
These are some of the exciting avenues modern science is exploring. They all seem very promising however there are a great many questions still to be answered before we can successfully place a new tooth back into the mouth and have it become a normal part of the body. And I’m yet to have any requests from patients regarding implanting newly grown mouse teeth.
That aside, the loss of a tooth, whether from accident, injury or disease is never a pleasant experience. It’s painful and can be disfiguring, as well as interfering with proper bite and chewing of food. So far the only options for replacement are dentures and implants, both of which have their drawbacks.
If all goes well, the promising new stem-cell techniques will be available soon. In the meantime, we should all pay attention to brushing, flossing, getting regular check-ups, and doing everything