For many people, it would be a dream come true: there’s no need for a filling or dental crown. Whenever you get a cavity, you can just regrow the damaged part of the tooth. And if a tooth is lost, you won’t need a dental implant: just regrow the entire tooth.
Although these may seem like imaginative flights of fancy, they’re not actually that far off as researchers are closing in on both of these technologies, and someday soon they may replace restorative dentistry.
Regenerating to Fill Cavities
There have been several proposed approaches to regenerating teeth instead of filling them. Some use lasers, others use fillings that stimulate the growth of the tooth around them to create a seal and stop secondary decay.
But perhaps the simplest approach to repairing cavities by regrowing teeth involves the use of an experimental Alzheimer’s drug, tideglusib. Tideglusib switches off an important enzyme designated GSK-3. In Alzheimer’s disease, GSK-3 contributes to the formation of plaques and fiber bundles in the brain. But it’s relevant to the teeth because GSK-3 keeps our body from continuing to grow new dentine.
That’s where tideglusib comes in: because it can stop the action of GSK-3, it can allow our body to grow replacement dentine. The procedure is relatively simple. Collagen sponges soaked in tideglusib are placed in the cavity. Then the body begins to grow new dentine, which replaces the collagen that the body absorbs.
It’s important to note that, so far, this only works to replace the dentine lost to decay. Dentine is the second layer of your tooth, underneath the enamel. So a filling would still be necessary to replace the enamel lost to decay.
But this technology is still remarkably advanced, and it may be ready in a relatively short period of time. Assuming, of course, we don’t discover any serious side effects related to tideglusib. GSK-3 is involved in many important processes in the body, so inhibiting it could very well have unexpected consequences.
The Beagle Bite’s Back
But what about regenerating entire teeth? That technology also seems very close, as demonstrated by a recent experiment that regenerated teeth in a beagle.
In this procedure, researchers extracted stem cells from a dog’s tooth. These cells were cultured into a “tooth germ,” which was then placed into the jawbone of a dog that was 30 days old. 180 days later, a new tooth emerged from the dog’s jaw. The new tooth grew into the same size and shape as the tooth it was replacing. It was fully functional and accurately formed.
Because a dog is not very different from a person, it seems like this means we are on the cusp of developing this treatment for people, but that may or may not be the case.
First, the sample size for this study is one: not enough to establish how really viable the procedure is. Is it repeatable? Can it be done consistently? Are there any side effects? These are things we just don’t know based on this one study.
And there’s the issue that this dog was very young. This may have contributed to making it susceptible to growing a new tooth. We don’t know if this technology would work on older animals.
Restoration Dentistry for the Foreseeable Future
Although both of these technologies seem very promising, there’s still no way to be sure that either of them will prove to be practical. And even if they do work, there’s no guarantee that they’ll actually be better than current techniques in restorative dentistry.
After all, dental implants and ceramic fillings are almost as good as we could hope for from regenerating teeth. And the regenerative process would take longer and be less certain. So, for now, we’ll continue with restorative dentistry.