Researchers have developed regenerative tooth fillings that enable teeth to heal themselves with stem cells. The new dental procedure could make root canal procedures obsolete.

The new dental treatment was developed by teams from Harvard University and the University of Nottingham. Upon earning a prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry's Emerging Technologies Competition this year, the procedure was described as a "new paradigm for dental treatments."

"Increasing innovation in the chemical sciences is one of the key elements of the Royal Society of Chemistry's industry strategy," said Royal Society of Chemistry's Head of Industry Steve Pleasance.

The regenerative tooth fillings stimulate the stem cells, which then coax dentin growth. Dentin is the bone-like material that makes up most of the tooth. The new procedure allows people to essentially regrow their own tooth that has been damaged by dental diseases.

In contrast, the current treatment for dental cavities is to drill out the decay and install a filling. When this treatment fails, patients often need to undergo the dreaded root canal treatment to remove the tooth's pulp.

According to Marie Curie research fellow Adam Celiz from the University of Nottingham, the current dental fillings used in clinics are "toxic to cells." This makes them incompatible with the tooth's pulp tissue.

A root canal is often performed to remove the damaged tissue in cases of dental injury and pulp disease.

"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," said Celiz.

The bioactive dental fillings can repair and regenerate not just the pulp tissues but also the dentin that surrounds it. The research team hopes to work with industry partners to help get the new technique available for dental patients. The new regenerative fillings can become another option in place of traditional fillings.

Wyss Institute fellow Kyle Vining from Harvard University shared that they are excited about the possibilities of the therapeutic biomaterials in bringing "regenerative medicine" into the field of restorative dentistry.

According to the American Association of Endodontists in the United States, there are about 15.1 million root canal treatments performed annually in the country. About 72 percent (10.9 million) are handled by general dentists while 28 percent (4.2 million) are handled by endodontists.

In a 2013 American Dental Association report [PDF], the average cost of a two-surface, amalgam filling in a permanent tooth is $146.61. As for rear tooth resin-based composite filling, the cost is $197.09.

Root canal treatments on a molar are quite expensive with a tag price of $918.88 plus a porcelain crown that comes at $1,026.30.

Photo: Rupert Taylor-Price | Flickr

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