Tooth enamel that regrows? Researcher says revolutionary gel could make it possible

April 16, 2018 by Katharine Gammon, University of Southern California
Tooth enamel that regrows? Researcher says revolutionary gel could make it possible
The synthetic tooth enamel (pictured here) was two times harder than the softened control enamel. Credit: Janet Moradian-Oldak

Dental cavities are the leading source of disability and pain: They affect 35 percent of the world's population, with an economic impact in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Still, the methods for treating cavities and tooth enamel loss generally involve pain, cost—and drills.

Janet Moradian-Oldak, a professor at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, has been studying how to coax tooth enamel to regenerate on its own for decades.

The problem is so complex, she said, because enamel—one of three hard tissues that make up teeth—is unique. The cells that create enamel die after it's produced, so it doesn't regenerate on its own.

"It's not like bone," said Moradian-Oldak, a researcher at the Ostrow School's Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology. "With bone, there is constant remodeling and regeneration."

Synthetic tooth enamel that is two times harder

Moradian-Oldak started with an idea: If she could understand how cells make enamel in nature, it could be possible to replicate the process in the lab without cells. She soon found the process was much more difficult than what she envisioned. Translating research from the lab to the clinic and regulatory process, in particular, has proved challenging.

So she decided to take a slightly different tack: Instead of mimicking the entire natural process, she'd just work on the part of enamel formation with the most impact.

Moradian-Oldak and her team engineered a string of amino acids that contained only the parts needed for enamel crystal creation. Over seven days, the shorter peptide grew synthetic aprismatic enamel that was two times harder than the softened control enamel. Moradian-Oldak reported the results of the study in a paper recently published in the journal ACS Omega.

Painting instead of drilling

The shorter peptide has a few benefits over a longer one: It's less expensive, and the path to getting this approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would be simpler. The study was a proof of concept, but eventually the peptides could be incorporated into a gel. Such a product could be painted on teeth eroded by early cavities or erosion causing pain and tooth hypersensitivity, effectively replacing lost enamel.

Lots of variation happens in the depths of peoples' mouths. In the lab, Moradian-Oldak studied the effects of controlled, artificial saliva on the synthetic enamel. The saliva trapped minerals like calcium and phosphate. She notes that in life, saliva has many other components like antibodies and proteins—another challenge.

The work is still in its early days, and clinical trials are years away, but it's still exciting, she said.

A new mantra for dentists

Kaushik Mukherjee, a fourth-year doctoral student in Moradian-Oldak's lab working on the project, explains that the current strategies for treating early cavities have shortcomings: They don't have the same composition as . "Because we are focusing on growing bioinspired synthetic , the structure is durable," he said.

There is a huge push in dentistry to be as minimally invasive as possible, Mukherjee explained—something that will come as welcome news to patients who clench their muscles when they hear a dental drill.

When treated early, conservative dentistry can help patients restore their teeth to health. That benefits everyone: As cavities go deeper, the cost of treatment gets higher.

"The new mantra in dentistry is filling without drilling," Mukherjee said.

Explore further: How to eliminate pain tied to tooth decay

Related Stories

How to eliminate pain tied to tooth decay

November 17, 2015
Dual discoveries at USC propose a promising method to regrow nonliving hard tissue, lessening or even eliminating pain associated with tooth decay, which the National Institutes of Health calls the most prevalent chronic ...

Using an electronic device to detect cavities early

November 2, 2017
 Imagine if dentists could find clear signs of tooth decay long before dental lesions turn into cavities and without using X-rays. A new device cleared for commercialization this month by the Food and Drug Administration ...

Genetic defects in tooth enamel conducive to development of caries

February 7, 2017
Bacteria are not the sole cause of caries; tooth resistance also plays an instrumental role. Researchers from the University of Zurich demonstrate that mutated genes lead to defects in the tooth enamel and can therefore encourage ...

Do girls have stronger teeth than boys?

January 10, 2018
What if you hardly ever consume soft drinks or eat anything acidic, but still have dental erosion on your teeth? Do genes play a role? And does it matter if you are a boy or a girl?

Study reveals how enamel protects children's teeth

June 4, 2013
A new study has revealed that children's teeth are protected from damage during chewing by variation in enamel thickness along the tooth row.

Recommended for you

Oral cancer prognostic signature identified

December 5, 2018
Researchers in Brazil have identified a correlation between oral cancer progression and the abundance of certain proteins present in tumor tissue and saliva. The discovery offers a parameter for predicting progression of ...

Much-needed new antibiotic shows great promise for treating gum disease

October 23, 2018
A new antibiotic being developed at the University of Virginia School of Medicine appears ideal for battling periodontal disease, the leading cause of tooth loss in adults, according to dental researchers at Virginia Commonwealth ...

Researchers identify immune culprits linked to inflammation and bone loss in gum disease

October 17, 2018
An unhealthy population of microbes in the mouth triggers specialized immune cells that inflame and destroy tissues, leading to the type of bone loss associated with a severe form of gum disease, according to a new study ...

Periodontal disease bacteria may kick-start Alzheimer's

October 4, 2018
Long-term exposure to periodontal disease bacteria causes inflammation and degeneration of brain neurons in mice that is similar to the effects of Alzheimer's disease in humans, according to a new study from researchers at ...

Dental research shows that smoking weakens immune systems

September 26, 2018
As if lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease weren't enough, there's more bad news for cigarette smokers.

Regrowing dental tissue with stem cells from baby teeth

September 11, 2018
Sometimes kids trip and fall, and their teeth take the hit. Nearly half of children suffer some injury to a tooth during childhood. When that trauma affects an immature permanent tooth, it can hinder blood supply and root ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.