Let me tell you a quick secret about reconstructive dentistry. Every reconstructive procedure has its roots in a tragedy. Most dentists hate reconstructive work. We’re good at it. We’re happy that we can restore lost function and replace lost smiles but we’d be happier if our patients never lost or damaged teeth to begin with. In an ideal world, no one would suffer from dental caries, no one would deal with gum and bone loss, and everyone would go to their grave with his complete set of natural teeth.
We don’t live in that world yet, but many of us have high hopes for the future. One of the most exciting recent advances in dental medicine is the research into dental stem cells. Scientists are exploring how the stem cells found in teeth could be used to repair spines, regrow nerves, or even produce insulin. However, it may also be possible to use the stem cells found in tooth pulp to restore or replace diseased teeth.
A Scientific Tooth Fairy
In some legends, the tooth fairy takes a child’s lost teeth and then implants them in the gums of babies. Old teeth grow into new teeth, and nothing is ever wasted. Science is making the tooth fairy tale seem almost possible.
Researchers working at Tufts University have used dental stem cells to produce tooth buds, just like the ones we all have before we’re born. When they placed the buds in a pig’s jaw, they began to grow into adult teeth. The therapy isn’t ready for humans yet, but when it is, we’ll have a natural alternative to implants.
Implants restore the look and some of the function of missing teeth, but they don’t distribute the force of chewing or interact with gums, jaws and other teeth in the same way that natural teeth do. They’re the best replacement available, but they’re not perfect. By replacing lost teeth with new, living teeth, we’ll be able to restore mouths to their original condition.
Fixer-Uppers, Not Lost Causes
Dental stem cells may also help us heal teeth damaged by cavities or root canals. Right now, the common wisdom is that teeth can’t heal. You’re given a set of good ones, and if you injure them or don’t take proper care of them, they’re damaged, or perhaps even totally gone. However, since there are stem cells in tooth pulp, our old understanding of how teeth work may have been wrong.
Imagine if a cavity was less like a permanent wound and more like a scraped knee. At Harvard, they’ve developed a new material that stimulates the stem cells in a tooth to start repairing the surrounding tissue. In the future, fillings may actually help your teeth repair themselves.
A Great Time to Be a Dentist
All in all, it’s a great time to be a dentist. We’re at the cusp of a major revolution in how we handle restorative dental care. In the near future, we won’t simply be patching holes and filling gaps. We’ll be able to truly restore a patient’s smile and oral health, thanks to the secrets of stem cells.
Originally published in Remin Media