Tooth loss is one of the most widespread dental problems in the United States. Around 178 million Americans are missing at least one tooth, and that number is likely to rise in the future.
Cosmetic dentists can replace missing teeth with artificial versions, which can work very well. However, medical research has not yet found a way to replace our missing teeth with brand new human teeth. Unlike alligators and sharks, humans are born with as many teeth as we’re ever going to have — we don’t have the ability to grow new ones once our permanent teeth are lost.
However, researchers are doing their best to change that.
Mouse Teeth May Hold the Key
Researchers have already figured out how to grow brand new teeth from stem cells in the mouths of animals. The technology around the collection and generation of dental stem cells from dental pulp is continuously advancing. Dental stem cells are some of the easiest and most affordable to collect in the whole of stem cell research. But more information is needed to determine how scientists can use their understanding of teeth and stem cells to best solve the problem of tooth loss.
Human teeth are pretty simple: They grow to a certain size during development, and then stay that size forever. As we use them throughout our lives, they sustain damage and wear. Humans have just two sets of teeth. When we lose our second set of teeth, we have to rely on artificial replacements. While we can do plenty to protect teeth, and can artificially repair or rebuild teeth to treat damage, that’s the extent of our dental abilities.
Mice, however, have a different story. Like all rodents, mice have sharp incisors that they use for burrowing, chewing, and self-defense. These activities, of course, cause extreme wear. However, unlike humans, mice have an evolutionary defense against this wear: A collection of stem cells located inside the jaw that constantly grow new tooth material. The new material pushes the tooth out of the gum, perpetually replacing that which is lost to wear.
What This Means for Dentistry
Researchers at UC San Francisco’s School of Dentistry think the infinitely-regrowing teeth of mice and other rodents may hold the key to understanding not just tooth regrowth, but the regrowth of all kinds of bodily tissues. The stem cells in a mouse’s jaw are a literal font of knowledge when it comes to tissue regeneration. A full understanding of how a mouse’s teeth work could be the final step in the process of learning how to solve tooth loss once and for all.
But until that day, a human tooth, once lost, is lost forever. Luckily, dental technology has already reached incredible levels —dental implants are more comfortable, functional, and effective than ever before. They may not be your real teeth, but they’re the closest that modern dental science can get!