What if a visit to the dentist didn't require painful drilling, but treatment with a laser beam instead? And what if your own body could regenerate new bone and teeth using its own stem cells, eliminating the need for artificial reconstruction?

That may all become possible with the recent discovery that low-power lasers can spur stem cells in the body to, among other things, regenerate dentin, the mineralized tissue that forms a layer between the pulp and the outer enamel of the tooth.

A Harvard-led team of scientists and engineers, headed by David J. Mooney, professor of bioengineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), has demonstrated how low-power laser light can trigger stem cells in the body to regenerate tissue. This has applications in both restorative dentistry and in regenerative medicine such as wound healing and bone regeneration.

The team was able to use laser light to trigger human dental stem cells to form dentin. Importantly, this research allows treatment to take place without first removing the stem cells from the body and replanting them. The exact molecular mechanism for stem cell dentin regeneration has also been discovered, fostering a clear understanding of how the process works.

"Our treatment modality does not introduce anything new to the body, and lasers are routinely used in medicine and dentistry, so the barriers to clinical translation are low. It would be a substantial advance in the field if we can regenerate teeth rather than replace them," said Mooney.

Dr. Jonathan Garlick, director of the Center for Integrated Tissue Engineering at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, said that the research was a powerful proof-of-concept, and that the technique, once fully developed and found to be safe, could be widely used. He was not involved in the research.

"I think it's very relevant directly in a variety of different tissues that require stimulation and activation of healing and repair, such as chronic foot ulcers in diabetic patients, bone healing and bone regeneration. I think this has broad applications," he stated.

Medical laser use dates back to the late 1960s. In the following years, it has been observed that low-level light therapy can stimulate many biological processes, including skin repair and hair growth. Ironically, higher-power laser light can remove both skin and hair. It's a matter of shedding a little light on the problem. Uncovering how low-level light therapy works at the molecular level helps explain much of the anecdotal observations from previous years and leads to the development of controlled treatment protocols.

Human clinical trials are in the planning stages, coordinating with the National Institutes of Health to ensure safety and efficacy parameters.

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