If you hate going to the dentist, this may bring a smile of relief to your face. For scientists have found a way to make a decayed tooth repair itself, using a laser beam.
The breakthrough could mean many patients will no longer need painful and costly treatment. As well as making trips to the dentist a lot more pleasant, it could also see dentures bite the dust.
Just a five minute blast from a laser was enough to kick-start the healing process inside the mouth, researchers found. While the experiments were on rats, the team – which included experts from the U.S. government’s dental research arm – hope to test the technique on people soon.
They began by making a small hole in the dentine, the hard core of the tooth that often rots away. They then shone a low-power laser on the tooth for five minutes.
Twelve weeks later, new dentin had formed, the journal Science Translational Medicine reports. Further experiments revealed what lay behind the laser’s healing effect.
The blast of intense light activated a chemical in the mouth which ‘woke up’ stem cells – master cells which act as a repair system for the body – deep within the tooth. These stem cells were then able to form new dentine.
Scientists have managed to make an entire living tooth before but previous work has been done in a dish in a lab. The new technique should be better, as the repair is done in the mouth and uses the body’s natural processes.
Researcher Praveen Arany, of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research in Maryland, said that if other parts of the tooth can also be regenerated, the technique might replace painful and expensive root canal treatment.
Being able to do major repairs to rotten teeth in this way would also mean fewer dentures, which are not as good for oral health as living teeth, which provide a more natural bite. The repairs would also have massive psychological benefits for patients self-conscious about their smile.
Unfortunately for those who fear the dentist’s drill, fillings would still be necessary for some types of decay. Dr Arany, a dentist, hopes to test the technique on people soon.
Professor Chris Mason, an expert in regenerative medicine from University College London, said: ‘I think it would be popular with patients because it would be low-cost and rapid and involve minimal surgery. It would also be popular with the health care providers who have to foot the bill.’
However, he cautioned that regrowing the enamel, the hard surface of the tooth that allows us to bite and chew food, will be much more difficult.
‘It’s a great start but ultimately you’d want to have enamel too,’ he said.