Since the inception of dentistry, it has been a battle of fighting off the inevitable. Once teeth begin to decay, dentists just do their best to slow the eventual loss of the tooth. Fillings wear out over time and must be replaced. Sometimes cracks or microscopic gaps in fillings allow further deterioration of the tooth. Trauma to teeth also almost certainly means the eventual replacement of that tooth with an artificial one. But, new science may change that in the not-too-distant future. Scientists at the University of Plymouth have made exciting breakthroughs that suggest it may be possible to regrow teeth after caries or trauma.
Your Tooth Structure
To help you understand this a little better, here is a quick crash course in the structure of your tooth. Each tooth has three parts — the hard “shield” on the outside, the enamel; the semi-soft dentin which makes the shape; and the pulp which has nerves and blood vessels. Dentists have been able to strengthen and over time rebuild your enamel on the outside of your teeth with fluoride treatments that help your tooth re-mineralize. However, science has not discovered how to regrow the bulk of your tooth, until now. 70% of your tooth’s mass is dentin, which once affected by caries or trauma has previously been treated by filling in the space with filling material.
Cells that Regrow Teeth
Dr. Bing Hu at the University of Plymouth has been studying how teeth and bones grow in hopes of unlocking the gene responsible for growing, and therefore re-growing, teeth. Cells which grow and regrow all types of tissue in the body are called stem cells. Different variations of stem calls manage different types of tissue and bone growth. The stem cells responsible for muscle and tissue growth are called mesenchymal stem cells. Working with mice, Dr. Hu and his team learned that when activated, these stem cells send signals back to the mother tissue to produce new cells.
The Dlk1 Gene
As they studied this process, Dr. Hu and his team uncovered a gene called Dlk1 which helps transmit this message from stem cells to the mother tissue in order to regenerate and regrow teeth. This gene controls how many new cells are created. This is a breakthrough that helps explain a process that previously was not completely understood.
The Future of Tooth Regrowth
By manipulating this gene in mice, Dr. Hu and his team have been able to activate stem cells to initiate the regrowth and regeneration of damaged teeth. We are still in the early stages of this new discovery, and follow-up studies will need to confirm our understanding of how Dlk1 gene, stem cells, and mother tissue work together to repair and regrow damaged teeth. However, this breakthrough gives us an exciting peek at the very likely future of dentistry.
We are hopeful that in the future we will have new ways to not just slow the eventual decline of tooth damage and loss, but reverse it by regrowing teeth!