Replacing Teeth Part 2: Tomorrow's Trends
by Dr. Don Rose,Writer, Life Alert
In Part 1 of this two part series, I discussed some popular options available today for dealing with the loss of one or more teeth. While many options do exist today, even more are coming in the future. In part 2, presented below, I present some promising new ideas that may point the way to the future of tooth replacement.
While losing a tooth is never a welcome thing, there are many options available for dealing with such a situation. In this article, the first of a two-part series, I discuss various methods being employed today for replacing teeth when they fall out.
Using Stem Cells to Grow A New Tooth
Some scientists have been exploring the potential of growing new teeth, rather than implanting artificial ones, in areas where adult teeth are missing. The idea is to coax cells into creating a new tooth after being placed in the area of the missing tooth. Growing teeth seems like a reasonable goal to strive for. After all, nearly all of us have the ability to grow a new tooth once a baby tooth falls out, and some people have even been known to grow a third set of teeth. The main difference here is that we would be controlling when the new tooth comes in, not nature.
A 2004 article discussed this line of research into growing new teeth. At that time, British scientists were working on a procedure that makes teeth grow from stem cells (undifferentiated cells with the potential to grow into other kinds of cells) implanted in the gum. The scientists at King's College, London had made a breakthrough in mice, coaxing stem cells to grow into teeth in a few weeks. The procedure: take stem cells and nurture them in a lab until they form a ball of new cells (a ‘bud’), then insert the bud into the gum where the new tooth is needed. The researchers estimate human adult teeth could take about two months to fully develop. According to the article, testing on humans was expected to begin around 2006.
Paul Sharpe, expert in regenerative dentistry and developer of the technique, said it should work in humans, not just mice, since "the principles are the same.” He feels the procedure could have advantages over the currently-popular method of replacing teeth with titanium implants (hollow screw-like posts that replace roots and support the final fake teeth). "That surgery can be extensive and you need to have good solid bone in the jaw and that's a major problem for some people," said Sharpe. "The new method could be used on far more patients because the ball of cells that grows into a tooth also produces bone that anchors to the jaw." In addition, "a key advantage of our technology is that a living tooth can preserve the health of the surrounding tissues much better than an artificial prosthesis.” Finally, “[t]eeth are living, and they are able to respond to a person's bite."
The new method is expected to be a simple procedure, using a local anesthetic. The cost of growing a tooth should be comparable to an implant, about $2600 to $3600. The scientists had said they hope to make the technology available to the public "within five years.” If this estimate is accurate, this is the year (2009) it may finally become available.
Gene Therapy to “Turn On” Teeth
The above research into growing a new tooth with stem cells sounds extremely promising, but there may be yet another biological mechanism available for scientists to take advantage of in order to grow a new set of pearly whites. Since there are documented accounts of people who grow a third set of teeth during their lives, beyond the normal two (baby and adult), perhaps geneticists doing research in the near future can determine what gene (or set of genes) is responsible for this third-set-of-teeth phenomenon. If so, we may be able to turn on or insert that gene (or genes) within a patient, in order to stimulate that person’s body to grow a whole new set of teeth. Such genetic therapy would be coaxing the body to do what it did at a younger age -- in a sense tricking the mouth into thinking it is time for a new set of teeth to form, even though that time has long since passed.
Because the ball-of-stem-cells technique is more localized (just one area of growth, just one tooth needed), it seems much more likely to become the next big breakthrough in tooth replacement, one that can give repeatable results in the greatest number of people. However, when most or all of a patient’s teeth are missing, the gene therapy approach may one day prove to be the method of choice.
While the ideas discussed above hold great promise, don’t hold your breath for these dental Holy Grails. These treatments may not become widely available (or affordable) until we are well into the next decade. Plus, even when one method or the other becomes available for actual patients to try, you may be better off letting someone else be the first on the block to try it. Why be the guinea pig? “Let the kinks get worked out first” is usually a good strategy when it comes to new innovations, which tend to be prone to errors and overpriced. (Just ask any PC user who has been the first to try a new Windows operating system.)
However, once these techniques finally do become available, and exhibit high success rates, people everywhere (especially seniors) will have a great reason to smile.
“Lose a tooth? Just grow a new one! say British scientists,” May 3, 2004. Health – AFP (Agence France Presse) and Yahoo! News.
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