Regenerative tooth fillings that allow teeth to heal themselves have been developed by researchers, potentially eliminating the need for root canals.  The treatment, developed by scientists from the University of Nottingham and Harvard University, earned the researchers second prize in the materials category of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Emerging Technologies Competition 2016.

The tooth filling works by stimulating stem cells to encourage the growth of dentin — the bony material that makes up the majority of the tooth — allowing patients to effectively regrow teeth that are damaged through dental disease.

The approach could significantly impact millions of dental patients each year when they are injured from dental disease or dental surgery. This is a significant step in the right direction, as the current method of treating cavities, drilling through the decay and inserting a filling, is quite lengthy and invasive. When this standard technique fails, a root canal procedure has to be performed which involves removing the pulp of the tooth and exposing it to further damage.

When a dentist removes the bulk of the nerve from the root canal, he cannot treat the numerous tubules with the remaining dead nerve tissue which is often infected and remains in the teeth.  The dentist removes about an inch of infected nerve from the tooth, but all of the untreated and possibly infected tubules remain in the tooth. These untreated infected cells are what can cause further health complications and possibly compromise the immune system.

Root canals mostly take four or five visits to complete and contain toxic bacteria. The procedure involves drilling a hole in the tooth, injecting antibiotics in the cavity to prevent further spreading of the infection, filling the tooth, and finally covering it with a crown. Researchers are now looking forward to introducing their technology to the market, making it a possible replacement for current root canal procedures.

Adam Celiz, a fellow of the Marie Curie Research programme at the University of Nottingham said, “Existing dental fillings are toxic to cells and are therefore incompatible with pulp tissue inside the tooth. In cases of dental pulp disease and injury a root canal is typically performed to remove the infected tissues. We have designed synthetic biomaterials that can be used similarly to dental fillings but can be placed in direct contact with pulp tissue to stimulate the native stem cell population for repair and regeneration of pulp tissue and the surrounding dentin. Our approach has great promise to impact the dental field and this prize provides a great platform to develop this technology further with industrial partners.”

Competition applications were judged on the level of innovation of the technology, its potential impact, and the amount of research and quality science behind it. The group would receive custom business support from multinational partner companies, business training, media support, and a cash prize of £3,000.

This was the fourth iteration of the Emerging Technologies competition and proved itself to be a successful platform for exciting and revolutionary technology entrepreneurs and science ventures. Winning the competition gives entrepreneurs significant head starts in their ventures. Ever since the initiative began in 2013, winners have gone on to raise a combined total of over £16 million in further funding, grown their companies and commercialized their ideas.

Kyle Vining, a fellow at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, added, “We are excited about the promise of therapeutic biomaterials for bringing regenerative medicine to restorative dentistry.”

This is not the first time that stem cells were used to introduce a world of futuristic medical technologies, stem cells have been previously used to improve eyesight.

A 2015 study conducted by Professor Gilbert Bernier of the University of Montreal and its affiliated Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital also showcased how age-related macular degeneration (AMRD), characterized by the loss of cones, could be treated with the help of stem cells. The study highlighted an important in-vitro technique that used human embryonic stem cells to produce light sensitive retina cells.

In 2015, scientists at the University of Zurich identified a unique mechanism that allowed neural stem cells to remain relatively free of age-induced damage. This came as promising news at the time since neural stem cells produce new nerve cells in the mammalian brain throughout their lives. However, aging greatly reduces the potential of this regenerative ability.

Given the extensive, cutting-edge projects and advancements already made in the field of stem-cell technology, the future remains bright and more stem cell research will be conducted for its possible incorporation in prosthetics, 3D generated organs, cancer and immune systems.