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What would be the ultimate achievement, the Holy Grail, the Nobel-Prize winning goal, of dentistry? Very few discoveries would fall into that category, actually, but finding a vaccine for tooth decay would be one. It's an achievement researchers are discovering to be far more complex than initially imagined, however. Another one of these ultimate goals is to be able to regenerate an entire tooth. On the face of it, this seems like something that would be much more difficult to achieve than a vaccine, however some extremely promising strides have been made in this field.
Is Growing Teeth In A Lab Even Possible?
The cue for this direction of research is actually derived from nature itself. Certain animals continue to grow teeth throughout their life spans, demonstrating growing teeth is indeed possible. These animals do not have to worry about losing a few teeth as they use them for hunting, chewing, or burrowing. They just grow them back!
Theoretically, if scientists are able to mimic this sequence of events, they should be able to grow teeth in a lab quite easily. Much like nature has shown it to be possible in rodents, sharks and other animals, humans could regrow teeth from a few cells.
Over the last few years, scientists have been able to grow teeth in controlled settings in mice with predictable success. These bioengineered teeth are grown by mixing together the essential cell populations of two different origins (mesenchymal and ectodermal) and then ensuring that they are provided with the necessary nutrients to form an intial tooth bud. This bud is then implanted inside the rat’s jaws, eventually forming into a complete tooth.
Can We Successfully Grow Human Teeth?
Two approaches are currently being explored when it comes to whole-tooth regeneration. The first is very similar to the approach outlined above. Harvest the necessary stem cells from the body, and then grow the appropriate populations of cells in a lab setting before implanting the tooth germ into the area where you want the teeth to grow.
The other is to implant a scaffold or a biocompatible mesh of the appropriate shape filled with stem cells and then letting it grow into a tooth which will erupt into the oral cavity. This is actually much more difficult to achieve since all the signaling molecules and cells will be regulated by the body. In fact, doctors still have difficulty in regenerating parts of the tooth-bone complex as is attempted by soft and hard tissue grafts during gum surgery or implant placement.
Skeptics cling on to this point and point out that when regenerating individual tissues is still a challenge, it may not be the wisest thing to look at bio-engineering the entire tooth. Sometimes however, starting from scratch is easier than trying to repair defects that have occurred over a period of time.