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What does dentistry and stem cell research have in common? The answer may be more enlightening than you can imagine. Scientists are working diligently to discover the abilities of cell regeneration within the human body. Dentistry is playing an important role in this new age research.

Is it possible that the days of the root canal could finally be numbered? Yes. It may even be sooner than you think. A root canal procedure involves cleaning out the infected and dead tissue in the root canal of the tooth, disinfecting the area, and adding an impermeable seal to try to prevent further infection. An estimated 15.1 million root canals are performed in the U.S. annually, according to a 2005-06 survey by the American Dental Association.

Elimination of root canals would be a huge paradigm shift in dentistry. As a biological dentist, I welcome this change in the practice of dentistry. My major concern about a root canal is that, although we may eliminate the pain and infection that patients initially experience, we cannot create a sterile environment inside the dentinal tubules. Also, the seal that is carefully placed at the apex of the tooth does not always prevent new infection from occurring. This compromised condition could subsequently spread to surrounding tissue without detection and eventually develop unexplained or mysterious illnesses in other areas of the body. (See the Tooth/Organ Chart and its connections to other major organ systems on our website at toothbody.com.)

Current research shows that advances made by scientists in treating tooth decay may allow dentists to restore tooth tissue and avoid the dreaded root canal procedure. Several recent studies have demonstrated in animals that procedures involving tooth stem cells appear to regrow the critical, living tooth tissue known as pulp.

Treatments that prompt the body to regrow its own tissues and organs are known broadly as regenerative medicine. There is significant interest in figuring out how to implement this knowledge to help the many people with cavities and disease that lead to tooth loss.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. half of kids have had at least one cavity by the time they are 15 years old and a quarter of adults over the age of 65 have lost all of their teeth. Tooth decay arises when bacteria or infections overwhelm a tooth’s natural repair process. If the culprit isn’t reduced or eliminated, the damage can continue. If it erodes the hard, outer enamel and penetrates down inside the tooth, the infection eventually can kill the soft pulp tissue inside the tooth, prompting the need for either a root canal or removal of the tooth. Pulp is necessary to detect sensation, including heat, cold, and pressure. It contains the stem cells (undifferentiated cells that turn into specialized ones) that can regenerate tooth tissue.

Researchers from South Korea and Japan to the U.S. and United Kingdom have been working on how to stimulate dental stem cells into regenerating pulp. The tooth is considered nature’s “safe” for these valuable stem cells. There is an abundance of stem cells in baby teeth, wisdom teeth, and permanent teeth. The process is still in its early stages, with only a few reports of experiments in humans, however, if successful, it could mean a reduction, or even elimination, of the need for painful root canals.

A 2009 nationwide survey by Nova Southeastern University (NSU) revealed that 96% of the dentists polled expected stem cell regeneration to dominate the future of dentistry. Additionally, more than half predicted that the technology would be available within the next decade.

What an exciting time to be in dentistry. Stem cell regeneration will certainly reform the practice of dentistry in a positive manner. I believe sooner than later we’ll witness the day when dentists will be moving away from traditional root canal treatments and reduce or eliminate the need for extracting teeth due to extensive dental decay. Beautiful, healthy teeth will finally be the norm instead of the exception.

Dr. Michael Rehme, DDS, CCN is one of the few Dentists in the U.S. that are Certified Clinical Nutritionists (CCN). He practices Biological Dentistry that includes mercury free, tooth colored fillings; healthy dental materials; balancing body chemistry; and nutritional therapy. For articles and information about Biological Dentistry and patient success stories visit www.ToothBody.com or call his office 314-997-2550. Attend a free monthly presentation and discussion by Dr. Rehme on Biological Dentistry the third Tuesday each month at 6:30 pm. Please call to verify the date and reserve your space.