Root canals are perhaps one of the single most miserable, predictable experiences one will encounter, but it turns out the scourge of the squealing dentist's drill can perhaps be avoided. How? With the help of stem cell fillings that enable the body to fix those decayed ivories on its own.
A normal root canal is performed when a standard cavity-covering filling has failed. For those who've been fortunate enough not to need one, what the dentist does is remove the soft pulp at the center of the tooth that includes nerves, connective tissues and blood vessels, and then the dentist cleans and seals off the tooth.
It's an exceptionally common procedure--100s of millions of standard fillings are done every year, and about 10-15 percent of them fail and require a root canal. And root canals can, while preventing infection and clearing decay, still weaken the tooth. So all in all they're not exactly anything anyone gets excited about.
But researchers at Harvard University and the University of Nottingham have developed a new type of filling that is made from a synthetic biomaterial that can be injected into the tooth. This biomaterial stimulates stem cells to encourage the growth of dentin--the bony material that makes up most of our teeth--and causes the teeth to regrow where decay has done its worst.
And this isn't just better for the psychological well-being of the patient--it also might be better for the tooth. As Adam Celiz, a Marie Curie research fellow at the University of Nottingham explains:
Existing dental fillings are toxic to cells and are therefore incompatible with pulp tissue inside the tooth. In cases of dental pulp disease and injury a root canal is typically performed to remove the infected tissues. We have designed synthetic biomaterials that can be used similarly to dental fillings but can be placed in direct contact with pulp tissue to stimulate the native stem cell population for repair and regeneration of pulp tissue and the surrounding dentin.
While the technology isn't quite there yet, it's safe to say there's some excitement around it; the team has been awarded a prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry, with judges describing their work as a “new paradigm for dental treatments.”
Photo CC by 2.0 Wonderlane