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Dental team studies tooth regeneration (8-1-00)

Dental researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC) and collaborators in Missouri have received a multi-million-dollar boost for a project that might result one day in regeneration of whole teeth.

Dubbed "tooth farming" in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal, the project is a large, collaborative research effort between UTHSC’s Dental School and The University of Missouri at Kansas City. The investigators are Mary MacDougall, Ph.D., associate dean for research in the Dental School and professor; James Simmer, D.D.S., Ph.D., associate professor; and Jan Hu, Ph.D., associate professor, all from the UTHSC Department of Pediatric Dentistry, and Jian Feng, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor at UMKC.

The group is investigating tooth formation and gene regulation in mice. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) recently awarded the researchers $4.6 million for the study, titled "Gene Expression and Regulation during Odontogenesis."

The investigators' purpose is to bring science closer to creating human teeth in the laboratory. Although the day when scientists will be able to build brand-new teeth is still 20 to 25 years away, Dr. MacDougall said dentures eventually will be replaced with a patient's own teeth, regenerated from a tissue sample.

"The real, cultured teeth would be implanted the same way a dental implant is done. The good thing about using a natural tooth is that it is made out of the body's own materials and won't provoke an immune response. Regenerating the tooth in the person's mouth, in the same spot where the old tooth fell out, is the ultimate goal, but we don't know yet if an adult will be able to tolerate tooth eruption," Dr. MacDougall said.

Advances in genetics may also apply to orthodontics and tooth repair. "We may be able to manipulate dentition in humans so that the teeth are already in perfect alignment when they erupt, or repair damaged hard tissue, such as enamel and dentin, in the developing tooth prior to eruption," she added.

Dr. MacDougall and her team also are working on creating synthetic tooth enamel and dentin, which humans normally don't regenerate. This synthetic could have wide application.

"You never know where the technology is going to go. Enamel is the hardest substance in the body. It could augment bone repair, or could be used in the electronics industry," she said.

Another project, a component of the UTHSC Division of Biomaterials' Advanced Dental Restorative Systems (ADRS) study, should show results within two or three years. Dr. MacDougall and her colleagues are working on a cavity treatment that will stimulate the growth of dentin, the hard tissue under the enamel that surrounds and protects the pulp of the tooth. The new treatment eventually will be applied to the cavity before it is filled, thus helping the tooth to heal itself.

Dr. MacDougall has been working on the tooth regeneration project for more than 15 years, she said. She began her research career at The University of Southern California, where she worked under Dr. Harold Slavkin, a former director of the NIDCR, in the first lab to clone a tooth gene.

Contact: Will Sansom