Scientists have been researching techniques for growing new teeth using a patient’s stem cells which could replace the use of dental implants.  An exhibit concerning the use of adult stem cells to grow new teeth is on display at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition which was opened to the public on July 1, 2014.

Dental Implants

More money is spent on dental care throughout the world than other medical treatments and it can be quite expensive to have dental work done such as crowns or implants.  Dental implants are also not an ideal option because they cannot recreate the normal connection between the tooth and bone being screwed to the jaw and they could become loose over time.  Scientists are currently developing a procedure that would grow fully functional teeth on site using an adult patient’s own stem cells.  Exhibit leader Professor Paul Sharpe, Dickinson Professor of Craniofacial Biology at King’s College London Dental Institute, believes that this procedure could be working on lab mice within 5 years.

Adult Stem Cells

Professor Sharpe says that a treatment using adult stem cells along with growth-stimulating chemical factors that are already used for other treatments has a better chance of being marketable than a treatment using embryonic stem cells.  Adult stem cells are the better option because they do not have the ethical controversy associated with them that embryonic stems cells do and they can be collected in large enough numbers for effective treatment.  Using an adult’s own stem cells also makes the new tooth safer than an implant by eliminating the need for immunosuppressant drugs.

“We’re focused on an end point for patients and to replace current implants, a stem cell therapy needs to be price competitive.  Patients are not going to pay for a treatment that costs 10 times as much as an implant.  Realistically they would probably pay for a treatment that costs twice or three times as much because a bioengineered tooth would last forever.  But to reach that point we need to go back to basics using only growth factors which are already regulated, and we need to use accessible cells from adults – that’s where the challenge lies.”

Cells Used to Grow Teeth

There are two types of cells required to grow teeth; epithelial cells and mesenchymal stem cells.  The mesenchymal cells send instructions to the epithelial cells to create the cells and tissues that form the tooth.  The research team led by Professor Sharpe has shown that epithelial cells from adult gum tissues do respond to instructions to form teeth from embryonic mesenchymal cells.  The goal now is to find mesenchymal cells in adults that that can elicit the same responses from the epithelial cells.

One possible source of adult mesenchymal cells is adult bone marrow or teeth but after 24 hours in culture, these cells lose the ability to trigger the growth of other tissues.  Professor Sharpe is currently working with Dr. Abigail Tucker to develop a way to reawaken this ability in the mesenchymal cells to grow new tissues so they can be used to grow new teeth.  Dr. Tucker studies tooth replacement in animals, specifically signals from stem cells that trigger the growth of new teeth, and Professor Sharpe hopes her research can help recreate these signals to revive the adult mesenchymal cells to grow new teeth.

“We’ve shown in the lab that you can use epithelial adult cells with tooth-inducing mesenchymal cells from embryos and we’ve shown that embryonic epithelial cells with mesenchymal adult cells can grow new teeth,” according to Professor Sharpe.  “Now we need to combine adult epithelial and adult mesenchymal cells.  It’s one of the last pieces of the puzzle.”