Groundbreaking Dental Implants Use Stem Cells to Regenerate Teeth

Find out how dental scientists are using stem cells to regenerate lost teeth. Read more about how dental science is changing the world, one set of teeth at time.

Groundbreaking Dental Implants use Stem Cells

Image by Engineering at Cambridge on Flickr

As anybody who has ever lost an adult tooth or had to undergo a routine extraction will know, dental damage can be a real pain. This is true both in the literal sense and in the financial. Without a reliable dental plan to fall back on, even routine procedures can be costly. For those on low incomes, it often means a making a choice between practicality and aesthetics.

For example, if you have a family and you could use the money elsewhere, are you really going to opt for a reconstruction after a pulling? Many choose to leave the socket empty, but this can have a detrimental impact on more than just appearance. It is common for tooth loss to be followed by accelerated bone degeneration. This occurs because the chemicals normally stimulated within the tooth are no longer produced once it has been pulled.

Instead, there is a gap and a stretch of exposed gum. In some cases, the remaining teeth move to fill the gap and become misaligned. For all of these reasons, dentists usually recommend some kind of crown or bridge to maintain a healthy dental structure. The problem is that reconstructions can be costly. In America, millions of extraction patients fail to follow up their procedures with repairs every single year.

The Future Looks Bright for Dentistry

The inequalities within the dental industry reflect the wider problems inherent within the healthcare system. The recent scandal over mercury fillings is a prime example of this. The government continues to insist that mercury amalgam fillings are completely safe, but the reality is that they are only being offered to low income patients. For the moment, at least, the real hope for equality and diversification lies with scientific and technological innovation.

And the good news is that dental scientists have made some incredible breakthroughs over the last decade. With the 3D printing revolution already transforming the way in which dental implants and bridges are manufactured, things are moving rather fast for the industry. On top of all of this, there some truly fascinating discoveries being made in dental genetics. In 2010, experts at Columbia University grew a regenerated tooth from stem cell DNA.

While the image of a lab full of genetic scientists, hunched over rows of mutant teeth, is an image worthy of a science fiction novel, the truth is somehow even more exciting. Like intrepid DNA construction workers, the experts created a tiny scaffold on which to shape and direct the growth of stem cells. This scaffold is completely natural, so it can be inserted into the body of a human without the risk of damage.

And, if the organic material is carefully formed into the shape of a tooth, the stem cells can be persuaded to mould themselves to it. As they grow and expand, they take on the shape of the rudimentary ‘tooth scaffold.’ Once the stem cells have completely colonised the scaffold, it can be implanted into a human mouth. Unbelievably, the stem cells then move into the empty socket where a tooth once stood and begin to fill it up with new dental material.

The Impact of Innovation on Patients

So, how does this affect patients, particularly those on low incomes with limited choices? Well, the honest answer is that it will take a long time for regular consumers to feel the benefits of this kind of innovation. Nevertheless, any discovery which promises to make dental treatments quicker, more efficient, and cheaper to perform will eventually influence the market. The 3D revolution is a good example of this.

The printers and other tools are still too costly for us all to have a 3D printing setup in our homes just yet. However, the market price on this technology is plummeting as brands fight to be the first to offer it to the high street. It is already cutting costs for businesses, by reducing the reliance on outside suppliers. In dental surgeries particularly, 3D printed bridgework is saving dentists time and money and they are passing these savings on to the patients.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the latest stem cell breakthrough is a positive development, even for those whom it seems not to affect right now. It will revolutionise the industry, by transforming its foundations. If the way in which dental procedures are carried out is fundamentally changed, it will have to be adjusted for the whole market. There can be no compromises if dental surgeries wish to stay competitive and function as market leaders.

Stem Cell Implants Speed Up Healing

The potential benefits of stem cell dental implants are simply vast. If a completely organic tooth can be grown in place of a lost one, instead of settling for an artificial crown, the consequences for oral health are very important. At the moment, dental implants are largely successful, but misalignment and rejection are common. It is not unusual for implanted teeth to fall out fairly soon after insertion, because the bone underneath has deteriorated.

As aforementioned, chemical signals are sent out from teeth every time that they come into contact with one another. So, for all of the teeth on a single row, this is happening constantly. When a tooth is pulled or lost, the contact is broken. The chemical signals are stopped and the two teeth surrounding the gap no longer benefit from growth facilitating hormones. They grow weak and, in some cases, go the same way as the originally lost tooth.

It can be difficult for dentists to stop this degeneration once it has started, because the only option, thus far, has been to implant an artificial tooth. This does help, as it plugs the gap and gives the surrounding teeth some structure, but it cannot restore the chemical imbalance. The artificial material can never be as fully integrated as an organically grown version, which is why stem cell research has dental scientists so excited.   

A Faster, Cleaner Reconstruction

If this is not enough to impress you, how about the fact that a new tooth can be grown and implanted in just two months? The method promises to accelerate healing, significantly reduce the risk of rejection and further degeneration, and it can provide an exact dental match. The perfect size, colour, and shape for the empty socket. This level of precision has been the real challenge for scientists, who spent many years figuring out how to turn on the right genes.

At the moment, the stem cell implants have only been tested on mice, but human trials are expected to start soon. The company responsible for the product hopes to see stem cell repairs being used in dental surgeries across America within the next five years. Unsurprisingly, the implants will initially hit the market with a very high price tag. This will likely fall as the technology becomes more widely available to commercial dentists.

The ultimate hope is, of course, that the discovery will eventually contribute to a better quality, more affordable dental service for all patients. However, access to the technology will be dictated by regulators, so it remains to be seen how easily it will enter the market. There is a chance that the nature of the research will act as a barrier to its wider distribution. For many years, particularly in America, stem cell science was heavily restricted by the government.

Considering the Ethics of Discovery

There are certainly some ethical issues to be considered, as there always will be with stem cell science. There are some who recognise its potential for changing our world. And, there are others who think of it as ‘playing god.’ As the building blocks of our biology, stem cells have long been a taboo for science. However, in the last decade, a number of breakthroughs have been made which have changed the face of our world.

It is now possible to ‘grow’ human body parts in laboratories, as organic replacements for lost limbs, ears, and organs. We have found a way to create meat without the need for killing. Every day, face transplants and extraordinary physical reconstructions take place and it is all thanks to the awesome power of stem cells. So, the next that you are bored and waiting for your dentist to hurry up and finish rooting around in your mouth, just think all of the amazing discoveries which are allowing you to enjoy fast, efficient, and risk free dental surgery. 

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