If I gave you a choice between a pizza party and a root canal, which would you choose? I bet you’d take the former, unless you rate the pain from your abscessed tooth at a 9. Of course then, I get it; the pizza can wait. Although the procedure is actually painless, a root canal is considered by many to be the dentistry equivalent of a child-eating troll living under a bridge. To the relief of many, root canals they could soon be a thing of the past.
Scientists from the University of Nottingham and Harvard University announced a new dental process that allows teeth to heal themselves. This process uses stem cells to promote the production of dentin, the bony material that that makes up the majority of the tooth. Our body doesn’t create dentin on its own. By producing additional dentin, the body could replace tooth mass lost to decay, preventing the need for invasive dental procedures.
Root Canals: Something to fear?
70% of Americans fear a root canal, according to the American Academy of Endodontists. But what actually is a root canal, and why are people so afraid of it? Found in the interior of a tooth, dental pulp is made up of living connective tissue, blood vessels, and nerves. When this pulp becomes infected, the infection spreads down towards the root of the tooth where it meets the bone. This kind of infection is known as a periapical abscess and can last for months or even years if left untreated.
Endo” is the Greek word for “inside”, and “odont” is Greek for “tooth.” Thus, endodontic treatment is the name of the process that treats the inside of the tooth. A root canal is just one type of endodontic treatment. Ideally, a successful root canal procedure will defeat an infection, drain fluids trapped in the tooth cavity, clean the tooth of decay and dead biomatter, and seal off the area to prevent further problems. So what does this have to do with stem cells?
Stem Cells in Dentistry
Harvard researchers recently identified a new way to use stem cells to prevent the kind of damage that is typically solved by an invasive process like a root canal or cavity filling. Stem cells are a class of undifferentiated cells that are able to differentiate into specialized cells. The procedure, which uses a material similar to dental fillings, “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”, says Dr. Adam Celiz, Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham.
This idea is not new. In fact, it was initially made famous in 2014 while some of the initial stem cell techniques were on display at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition. Speaking on the research and development over the past two years, David Mooney, a bioengineering professor at the John Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard stated, “These materials may provide an effective and practical approach to allow a patient to regenerate components of their own teeth”
It’s still too early to say how effective this method will actually be, but this could be the beginning of the end for the dreaded root canal. By regenerating decaying teeth, it could prevent the type of damage that requires a need for root canals. It could also provide preventative treatment to those that cannot pay for more extensive procedures.
Watch the video below for an even better understanding of how the stem cell process works!