Chinese scientists have invented a way to regrow tooth enamel, which may pave the way to permanently repair teeth and abandon temporary fixes that can be too expensive in the long run.
Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in the human body. It is a mineralized substance with a highly complicated structure that covers the surface of teeth. The structure is made up of enamel rods interwoven with inter-rods in a fish scale pattern which makes it the hardest tissue in the human body.
However, teeth enamel are always enduring damage because we also continuously eat. Over time, it gets prone to breakage and eventually chips off from our teeth over time.
It is initially formed biologically but once mature it becomes acellular, meaning it becomes devoid of the ability to self-repair.
Once tooth enamel breaks or wears away, it doesn’t grow back, which is why they are often considered as irreplaceable. Unlike other bones or tissues in our body, doctors can manage to regrow them under certain conditions and to some extent.
This breakage also causes cavities to grow and why cavities (tooth decay) are one of the most prevalent chronic diseases in humans.
As of now, dentists are only limited to using artificial fillings to plug gaps and holes caused by enamel breakage to prevent tooth decay.
Even with advanced studies for dentistry, scientists can’t determine and replicate enamel because of its complexity. Resins, ceramics and amalgam fillings are often used for repairs, but they are not a permanent fix. The fact that they are made of foreign materials means they can’t achieve a permanent restoration.
Even more unfortunate, these temporary fixes are also more fragile and prone to breakage too. Patients often have to replace them a couple of times throughout their lifetime if they wish to keep their teeth for a long time. However, this can be costly for some, which leads them to prefer pulling out the decaying teeth instead.
Fortunately, a team of scientists from China’s Zhejiang University and Jiujiang Research Institute says it has finally figured out how to regrow tooth enamel, a development that could upend dental care.
The team published their research in the journal Science Advances where they detailed the revolutionary invention.
In the paper, the team created a gel that has been found to help mouse teeth regrow enamel within 48 hours. The researchers developed the gel to imitate the natural mineralization procedure of our teeth’s outer protective layer.
Tooth enamel is formed in a biomineralization process whereby cells called ameloblasts secrete proteins that eventually harden into that tough external coating of our teeth.
The problem is that ameloblasts are only present during tooth development, meaning our mature teeth have virtually no natural ability to self-repair after they’ve formed, which is why scientists opted to mimic that process instead.
The new gel made by the Chinese scientists is different because it is made of the same material as enamel. It is made by mixing calcium and phosphate ions – both minerals which are found in coating – with the chemical called triethylamine in an alcohol solution.
“We herein reveal that a rationally designed material composed of calcium phosphate ion clusters can be used to produce a precursor layer to induce the epitaxial crystal growth of enamel apatite, which mimics the biomineralization crystalline-amorphous frontier of hard tissue development in nature,” the researchers, co-led by biomimetics and materials scientist Zhaoming Liu, write in their study.
In an experiment, scientists discovered that the gel once applied to human teeth donated by patients, the ultra-small clusters successfully fused to the fish-scale-like structure of native enamel, replicating the coating of the tooth with an indistinguishable and equally hard repair layer that developed to a thickness of up to 2.8 micrometers within 48 hours.
However, the team noted that they ill not be able to start giving out the procedure to anyone just yet, but it is a promising sign that regenerative dentistry could someday heal tooth decay.
There’s a long way to go before the gel can be used in human medicine because it is still too thin. Natural-grown enamel is 400 times thicker than that grown with assistance from the new gel.
Their study will also take some time before they reach clinical testing on humans, which will be a determining factor for reliability and safety.
The scientists are currently continuing the testing on mice and plan to eventually test the gel on people, tracking how the new enamel holds up as they go about their day, eating, drinking, and chewing.
“Prevention is the best approach,” biomedical researcher Chen Haifeng from Peking University, who wasn’t part of the study, told an outlet.
“We should never wait until the damage is done. Our teeth are a miracle of nature. The artificial replacement will never do the job as well.”