There has been much talk in the media about using stem cells to address serious health issues. Perhaps you've heard that stem cells have the ability to treat diabetes or help regrow nerve tissue in people with spinal cord injuries. Interestingly, researchers are also examining if it's possible to use stem cells to grow teeth.
What Are Stem Cells?
As the National Institutes of Health explains, stem cells are unlike any other cells in the human body for three specific reasons:
- They are unspecialized. Unlike organ-specific cells, like a liver cell or a muscle cell, stems cells don't serve one particular purpose.
- They can divide and renew themselves, even after long periods of inactivity.
- They have the unique ability to generate specialized types of cells that serve various organs.
Potential Uses of Stem Cells in Dentistry
In traditional dentistry, when a tooth has a cavity, a dental professional will remove the area of decay and replace it with a filling material, as the Mayo Clinic explains. If the decay travels through the outermost layers of the tooth and reaches the dental pulp, the patient may require a special procedure called a root canal to remove the infection in the tooth and the affected tissues. When the decay is quite extensive, a dental professional may need to remove the tooth entirely.
In all three of these instances, the current standard of dental treatment requires removal of the dental tissues. But what if stem cells could be used to regrow tooth structure, dental pulp or an entire tooth? The way society thinks of dentistry would be forever changed.
What Does the Current Research Show?
In a study published in the Journal of Dental Research, researchers investigated the possibility of regenerating dental pulp tissue. They used immature tooth root segments injected with human dental pulp stem cells (hDPSCs) and human umbilical vein endothelial cells (cells taken from the umbilical cord) and implanted the samples in rats to measure growth. At the end of the study, the root segments showed new blood vessel formation, which holds promise for future applications in humans.
According to an article in Science Translational Medicine, another stem cell research study used a low-powered laser treatment to activate a latent growth factor complex, which is the action that enables a person's stem cells to differentiate and promote tissue regeneration. Under laboratory conditions, the researchers were able to get human dental stem cells to specialize when exposed to the laser light. When they used the laser on rats, they were able to regrow tissue from the middle layer of a tooth, also known as dentin.
Pulp necrosis is the death of the cells and tissues in the interior of your tooth, and it is one of the most common factors leading to tooth loss, as another article in Science Translational Medicine explains. This can occur after traumatic dental injuries, and researchers are working to determine if stem cells can regenerate dental pulp in order to treat this issue. In the study, researchers extracted hDPSCs from healthy primary teeth and implanted them into injured teeth. After twelve months, dental pulp tissue had regenerated with both blood vessels and sensory nerves. The roots also continued to mature with this treatment.
The future of using stem cells in dentistry holds promise, but much more research remains to be done. Currently, stem cells have only been used to regrow dentin and pulp tissue in the laboratory setting or in small human studies, though the possibility of using stem cells to grow teeth may become a reality in the future.