Dental Stem Cell Discovery

By Emma Yasinski

A newly-discovered population of stem cells may be able to aid in tooth regeneration, according to a recent study published in Nature Communications.

Bing Hu, DDS, an associate professor of oral and dental health research at the University of Plymouth in England and senior author of the study, told Incisor that he was “surprised and fascinated” when he first witnessed the phenomenon in a mouse.

In rodents, teeth never stop growing. Dr. Hu and his team set out to find what biological mechanism is responsible for telling the teeth to continue producing new cells.

Ninety-two percent of adults age 20 and over have had caries. In 18 percent of seniors, and 26 percent of people age 20-64, the decay is untreated. About five percent of adults have no teeth at all.

Dr. Bing Hu
Dr. Bing Hu

Current methods for treating tooth decay include fillings, adding crowns, root canals, implants, extractions, and working to prevent future caries, but no existing method can undo damage that has already been done. Many researchers are attempting to harness the power of stem cells to help regenerate the damaged teeth that plague patients.


In the experiments, activating this molecule helped heal wounds in a commonly accepted rat model of tooth decay.


Stem cell populations—undifferentiated cells that are found in the body throughout the majority of postnatal life—have been identified in teeth. Some stem cells can even help heal teeth, but the identification of this particular type of stem cells is new. Previously, scientists believed that only one stem cell niche would exist in each type of tissue, but this population makes up a surprising extra niche that complements the previously discovered stem cells found in the mouse incisor mesenchyme.

These newly identified stems cells, called mesenchymal stem cells, grow into bone, teeth, and muscle. After observing these cells contributing to the ongoing formation of dentin in a mouse model, the University of Plymouth team sought to figure out what molecular signals are capable of activating the mesenchymal cells.

The most exciting finding is that a gene called Delta-Like 1 Homolog (DLK1) which encodes a molecule by the same name, is crucial to activating these cells. In the experiments, activating this molecule helped heal wounds in a commonly accepted rat model of tooth decay. The researchers believe this information could be used to develop new treatments for tooth decay, loss, and trauma.

Dr. Hu says he’s received enthusiastic feedback on the study, including from patients interested in participating in clinical trials to regenerate teeth. This study was conducted only in rat and mouse models, and additional studies are necessary before determining whether the work can be translated into a therapy for human tooth loss.

“Further studies need to take place to validate the findings for clinical applications in humans: ascertaining things like appropriate treatment duration and dose, but these early steps in an animal model are exciting,” Dr. Hu said in an interview.


Additional Reading on Stem Cells and Dentistry:


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, Kaiser Health News, NPR Shots, and Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News.

Other Recent Incisor Articles by Emma Yasinski include:

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