Chinese researchers have concocted a gel that may be the ultimate game-changer in dentistry. It grows tooth enamel. This is a WOW! achievement because the hard white protective coating on our teeth that protects them against decay doesn’t grow back after it has been damaged.
Up until now, that is.
Enamel is the hardest biological tissue known. But, in the mouth, too much sugar and corrosive acids combined with poor dental hygiene can lead to a build-up of plaque on the teeth. The bacteria that grow on dental plaque release acid that further eats into the hardy enamel. Because tooth enamel doesn’t grow back, cavities form, requiring a trip to the dentist for a filling.
Dental fillings can be pricey and may fail or fall out completely, requiring another possibly-painful trip to the dental chair. But now, this gel reportedly can mimic the body’s natural way of building up new tooth enamel.
A veritable swarm of Chinese scientists got their group geek on when they launched their revolutionary project, a quest to find a permanent treatment for dental damage. Their results report is called:
“Repair of tooth enamel by a biomimetic mineralization frontier ensuring epitaxial growth”
That’s a mouthful but it means that these super-bright analysts came up with a clever system that imitates nature’s own architecture – that’s the “biomimetic” part of the project’s name.
The team of inventors from Zhejiang University and Jiujiang Research Institute at Xiamen University developed a material composed of eensy-weensy clusters of calcium and phosphate ions – the main ingredients, as it were, of natural tooth enamel. The ion clusters act as the basic building block, producing a precursor (base) layer which stimulates the growth of a crystalline overlayer of enamel apatite (mineral calcium fluorophosphate).
This process is how hard tissues in the human body develop in nature to protect teeth from decay – as in bad breath and cavities.
The researchers explained the challenge they wished to overcome:
“Although a range of materials, such as composite resins, ceramics, and amalgam, have been developed for the restoration of tooth enamel, they have failed to achieve permanent repair because of the imperfect combination between these foreign materials and the native enamel.”
First tests of the innovative gel were made on crystalline hydroxyapatite, a mineral similar to tooth enamel. The calcium phosphate clusters in the gel fused successfully onto the substrate material.
Encouraged by these results, the scientists conducted tests on human teeth (having removed them from their owners first). They damaged the enamel with acid and then applied a coat of gel. The treated teeth were stored for 48 hours in an environment designed to simulate conditions inside a human mouth.
Lo and behold, the gel had produced an admittedly very-thin, 3-micrometer layer of enamel-like coating – but it proved to be as strong and durable as natural tooth enamel. Undamaged enamel is about 400 times thicker than that but study author Ruikang Tan said simply apply a lot of layers of gel.
This inventive crew may well solve the thickness issue as trials on mice goes forward. The ultimate test will be on people, of course.
Tan said that his team will need to test for safety the chemicals in the gel and that new enamel can form in a real human’s mouth even with eating and drinking. But the good news is that the developers think their process could be developed into an effective cure for enamel erosion in clinical practice.
The Chinese scientists are applying an approach to copy complicated structures in natural materials to a wide range of artificial ones. They believe their method can be extended as a general strategy for the construction of structurally complex materials.
A vaccine to prevent the development of dental caries (cavities) are currently under development by another Chinese team, this one led by Tan Huimin with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIOV) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Jeremy Mao, the Edward V. Zegarelli Professor of Dental Medicine and director of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Laboratory at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, has succeeded in using stem cells to force teeth in laboratory mice and rats to regenerate. He believes that new dental stem cell and related bioengineering technologies will “redirect dentistry away from amalgam fillings, root canals, crowns, and dental implants.”
For their part, Tan’s research group called their work “a new pathway for bioinspired design and production.”
Now, that’s something to chew on.