July 17, 2000
Volume XXXIII, No. 28



MacDougall receives $4.6 million grant from NIDCR 


Stories in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business Week and, most recently, on German TV, represent just a sampling of the media coverage Dr. Mary J. MacDougall, associate dean for research in the Dental School and professor of pediatric dentistry, has received in the past several months. The reason for all the attention is Dr. MacDougall's participation in the American Dental Association's June conference, "Healthy Mouth Healthy Body: the Future of the Smile." She attributes the media blitz to widespread interest in tooth regeneration. 

Dubbed "tooth farming" by the Wall Street Journal, Dr. MacDougall's project is a large collaborative research effort with investigators Dr. James Simmer and Dr. Jan Hu in the Department of Pediatric Dentistry and Dr. Jian Feng at the University of Missouri at Kansas City to investigate tooth formation and gene regulation in mice. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) has awarded the researchers $4.6 million for the study, "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 says eventually dentures 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. 

Dr. Mary MacDougall (left) works with second-year dental student Sarah Tevis while being filmed for German TV.

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 are also 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 Division of Biomaterials' Advanced Dental Restorative Systems (ADRS) study, should show results within two or three years. 

Dr. MacDougall and 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 (USC) working under Dr. Harold Slavkin, a former director of the NIDCR, in the first lab to ever clone a tooth gene. 

A Ph.D. in craniofacial molecular genetics and trained at the USC School of Dentistry, Dr. MacDougall said she also had an interest in art and theater. "Dentistry was a good area to mix art and science," she said.