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The Future Has Teeth
Taran Rampersad, 13 May 04

Last week, Grow-your-own to replace false teeth hit my email client.

...Instead of false teeth, a small ball of cells capable of growing into a new tooth will be implanted where the missing one used to be.

The procedure needs only a local anaesthetic and the new tooth should be fully formed within a few months of the cells being implanted...

This prompted some more fact finding - which lead to a brief email interview with Professor Paul Sharpe.

According to the article, trials have been successful with mice - which means that use in humans is simply a manner of time.

Professor Paul Sharpe is internationally known for pioneering research into genetic control of tooth development, and he recently was awarded the 2004 Craniofacial Biology Award. He's also the founder of Odontis Ltd., which was formed to develop the growth of natural living tooth implants in people who need them. He was also kind enough to do a brief email interview.

WorldChanging: Professor Sharpe, how long have you and others been considering this particular possibility?

Professor Sharpe: About 2 years

WorldChanging: Because the tooth is generated from the stem cells of the patient, there's almost no chance of 'rejection' - am I correct?

Professor Sharpe: Yes

WorldChanging: I understand that there are different kinds of teeth - molars, cuspids, bicuspids, etc. With this procedure, will the tooth being grown be 'nudged' in one of these ways, or will the human body actually govern what type of tooth is grown based on the placement of the tooth within the jaw?

Professor Sharpe: The type of tooth can, to some extent be determined in the laboratory before implantation into the patient. We will have some level of control over type since this is determined early in development.

WorldChanging: I understand that blood vessels within the gums and around the jaw will provide nutrients (and remove waste) from the cells which will be growing into the tooth, and that the tooth itself will anchor to the jaw. Will there be a nerve in the tooth which attaches to the jaw, as our first and second sets of teeth?

Professor Sharpe: There should be nerve growth. developing teeth produce factors that attract nerve growth.

WorldChanging: This is obviously a very positive start with regard to regeneration. Is the tooth relatively easy to do this with because of it's simplicity in structure, or are there other factors which would present challenges when dealing with this sort of regeneration with other parts of the body - for example, with a finger - which is quite a bit more than bone?

Professor Sharpe: Teeth are simple in the respect that they dont require muscles, tendons etc. and dont "move". More importantly is the fact that they are easily accessible and non-essential for life.

WorldChanging: Professor Sharpe, myself and everyone reading this are very happy that you spent the time to answer some of these questions; if you have anything further to add or you've found common misconceptions you would like to address, feel free to add them in.

Professor Sharpe: Please try and ensure that potential patients realise that this project is still at the research stage and wont be available for patients for at least 2-5 years.

WorldChanging: Thank you very much for this interview and your insight, Professor Sharpe. And thank you very much for pursuing this project as well.

As Professor Sharpe points out, this won't be available for patients for at least 2-5 years so it's important that we take care of our teeth through traditional means in the interim. And yet, we get a glimpse of what the future holds.

In the next decade, trips to the dentist may be different - but not too different. We still need to brush, floss and see our dentists regularly. But for those of us who loose teeth, we will have another option.

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This is so cool.

My teeth are in OK shape, and I take care of them, but I really like the idea of being able to replace those that wear out or are lost due to accident.

Let us hope that Prof. Sharpe manages to avoid the desperate and relentless Denture Syndicate for long enough to perfect his work.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 13 May 04

Something I remember reading about in New Scientist a while ago was replacing the bacteria in our mouth that cause tooth decay with harmless ones: see e.g.

I'm hoping this comes to fruition soon ... my sweet tooth has too many fillings already :/

Posted by: luke on 13 May 04

Stefan - it certainly is cool. Probably one of the first practical applications of bioengineering that a lot of people will be able to enjoy. I hope it's not me, but - one never knows. :)

Luke - thanks for that link to that bacteria. That's very interesting as well.

Maybe, despite ourselves, we may have a full set of teeth for the rest of our lives :)

Posted by: Taran on 13 May 04



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