Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Tooth Regeneration

Via a SlashDot posting entitled "Tooth Regeneration Coming Soon" (they do love to sensationalize over there, don't they?) comes this rather goofy article in the Washington Post about using stem cells to regrow teeth.

I say it's goofy because it's one of those pop science articles chock full of pop culture references (e.g. Dr. Strangelove) that have nothing to do with the topic at hand, and it's over halfway through before they get to the current state of research, which isn't exactly "soon".
Regenerating a whole tooth is no less complicated than rebuilding a whole heart, says Songtao Shi of the University of Southern California, who heads a team working on creating such a tooth.

Not only do you have to create smart tissue (nerves), strong tissue (ligaments) and soft tissue (pulp), you've got to build enamel -- by far the hardest structural element in the body. And you have to have openings for blood vessels and nerves. And you have to make the whole thing stick together. And you have to anchor it in bone. And then you have to make the entire arrangement last a lifetime in the juicy stew of bacteria that is your mouth.


Nobody is predicting when the first whole tooth will be grown in a human, although five to 10 years is a common guess. "The whole tooth -- we've got a long way to go," says Shi.

But his team is pursuing what he believes is a practical and immediate result: growing important parts of teeth that he thinks people will want to use right away. They're working on creating a living root from scratch. "I think it will take a year," Shi says. "Depends on how lucky we are, and how good we are."

"How to make a root is real important," says Robey. "Dentists say, 'Give me a root and I can put a crown on it.' "

In addition, "we're really, really close to treating periodontal disease with regeneration," Shi says. Groups in Japan and Taiwan and at the University of Michigan are using stem cells to create hard and soft tissue in humans, he says. The idea is to take a tooth about to fall out and reconnect it firmly.

When you ask Shi how close we are to growing full teeth on demand, he laughs. But his crew has already created a living root using stem cells in a pig. "We did it. It works. We're happy. We still have some questions to answer, but we're working on it."
But then you've got clinical trials and FDA approval and all that, so I'd go ahead and double even the most optimistic estimates. Futurists geeks just love to overspeculate on the latest technology, but it needs to be tempered with a bit of realism.

That said, it will happen, and the technology of regrowing lost teeth from stem cells, while not nearly as important as regrowing brain or heart tissue, is still pretty damned awesome.


Anonymous said...

I had one problem with the WaPo article in that they said you had to have saved your baby or wisdom teeth in order to be able to regenerate new ones.

That's not entirely true. As long as you still have living teeth in your mouth, you have a source for stem material. At worst, they could extract one of your remaining molars for source material and then regenerate that, and the other necessary teeth.

kirby said...

I disagree with the comment that it is not as important as regrowing a heart.. It's all in who you ask.

I lost my teeth at a young age due to trauma. I am now a certified dental technician. I spend all day making prosthetics but I spend even more time repairing appliances and adding teeth that have been broken down. When you lose a tooth, you also lose bone. It effects your physical health not to mention your emotional health. If we could just grow a root or re-secure teeth, that would be a major improvement from the archaic practices we have used for an entire century.

Even the best dentures and partial dentures can be painful and contribute to bone loss and resorption. We've got to find a better.. This seems like a possible "REAL" treatment and not just a band aid. Please pull for the root. I would suspect that even if it were possible to grow and incisor,, it would be difficult to control the appropriate shape and alignment in an adult mouth with worn dentition.