By Emma Yasinski
Researchers at the Queen Mary University of London have developed a technique that they believe will help regenerate tooth enamel – which, unlike other tissues, can’t regenerate on its own. The study was published in Nature Communications.
When patients experience caries or tooth decay, dentists have several options for materials to fill the gap. They can use gold, ceramic, silver amalgam, plastics, and even substances with glass particles. None of these materials, however, can match the function of a tooth’s enamel, its outermost layer, and the hardest substance in the body.
Enamel is especially important to dental health, protecting teeth from decay and sensitivity, but it can erode due to a variety of causes, including diet, medications, and genetics.
Lead author of the study, Sherif Elsharkawy, BDS, a dentist and oral surgeon conducting research on tissue engineering, explained that this can lead to a whole host of problems, such as “surface mismatch, fractures, rocking of restorations, marginal damage, leakage, and further loss of dental tissues.” That’s why, he says in an email interview with Incisor, “a major goal in modern dentistry is to develop materials that can look and behave to some extent like the native dental enamel. That's what we are trying to do and achieve with our research to help our patients.”
That’s much easier said than done.
Enamel doesn’t contain any living cells, which is why it can’t regenerate on its own. It’s generated through biomineralization. Scientists aren’t sure exactly how biomineralization – a process through which living tissues harden into a very specific, hierarchical structure of crystallized molecules – is controlled. Researchers have been working to understand how these structures function in nature, and what signals are required for them to grow in this unique manner.
The team discovered that precisely-designed polymers, elastin-like recombinamers (ELR), could influence crystals to grow into hierarchically organized patterns. They were surprised to see how customizable these patterns were; by adjusting the ELRs, they could directly impact the way the crystals grew. This point may help researchers understand how protein disorder impacts health, and how to regenerate not only enamel but other mineralized substances, including bone.
The materials Dr. Elsharkawy and his colleagues developed had characteristics similar to enamel – they are stiff, hard, and resistant to acid. The researchers say they could customize them so they can be used to coat teeth.
Dr. Elsharkawy emphasized that the technology won’t just be used for caries. “For example, we could develop acid-resistant bandages that can infiltrate, mineralize, and shield exposed dentinal tubules (microscopic channels) in human teeth for the treatment of hypersensitivity," he told Sky News.
“Our data will provide a paradigm shift in the design of materials for dental regeneration. At the current stage, we are open to collaborations and working towards the optimization and development of the technology.”
Author: Contributing writer Emma Yasinski received her Master of Science (MS) in science and medical journalism from Boston University. Her articles have also appeared at TheAtlantic.com, Kaiser Health News, NPR Shots, and Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News.
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