If you've suffered one-too-many root canals or dread losing teeth as you age, you'll be pleased to know that both fears may soon be a thing of the past. Scientists are making major advances in treatments that will allow you to regrow both the soft living tissue in teeth — eliminating cavities and the need for painful root canals — and the actual structure of the tooth, which will allow you to regrow teeth. All of these exciting breakthroughs will use your own stem cells harvested from the pulp inside healthy teeth or from bone marrow.
"This is a really exciting area with immense potential for improvements in healthcare and maintenance of tooth vitality," professor Anthony Smith of the U.K.'s University of Birmingham told Newsmax Health. "We're not talking about just one new treatment approach, but a spectrum of approaches," he said.
Researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and South Korea have been working on methods to manipulate stem cells into producing pulp, the living tissue in teeth. The process, which has been successful in the lab and is being tested on animals, could eliminate the need for root canals in all but the most severe cases of infection.
Currently, root canals involve removing decayed and infected tissue, which includes the pulp and nerve in the tooth's root, then disinfecting and sealing the tooth.
Some researchers are extracting stem cells from pulp, then transplanting the cells back into the patient's tooth along with proteins that encourage growth. Others focus on growing healthy new pulp completely inside the tooth, either by using stem cell technology to regenerate new growth or controlling the inflammation that's the "root" of the problem. "Just in the same way as we see natural wound healing in skin following a cut if the wound is kept clean, similar responses can occur in the pulp of the tooth," says Smith.
Researchers at the College of Dental Medicine at Nova Southeastern University are developing a method to grow "real" replacement teeth. The process extracts stem cells from inside a tooth or bone marrow of the patient and then puts them on a polymer scaffold in the shape of the tooth that's to be replaced. As the cells multiply and grow, the scaffold dissolves. The teeth can be grown in the patient's mouth, or in a lab and then inserted.
"It is difficult to place a specific time on this, but we're probably looking at periods of weeks for the dental tissues to naturally heal themselves or to be able to grow new teeth," says Smith.
Professor Smith says that the greatest short-term research efforts will probably be directed to saving the patients' own teeth. "However, growing entire teeth is feasible, but will take much longer to be introduced into clinical practice due to the complexity of the task," he said.
The time frame for the varying techniques range from already being used to a couple of decades away. "Some dentists are already trying to stimulate the natural wound healing responses in the pulp by good infection control," Smith said.
According to the American Dental Association, about 15.1 million root canals take place each year. Government statistics show that more than 10 percent of Americans aged 50 to 64 years of age have no remaining natural teeth, and one-fourth of all U.S. adults aged 65 and older have lost all of their teeth.
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