Dr. Paul Berger, your Sonora, CA dentist, wants every patient to know that strong teeth and gums play a vital role in helping maintain your health. In addition to assisting you in eating, talking, and drinking, a mouth full of pearly white teeth can also provide you with the confidence needed to succeed in both your personal and professional lives.
Despite the importance of maintaining a healthy smile, millions of Americans suffer from permanent tooth loss each year. Whether caused by an accident, gum disease, or other medical issue, permanent tooth loss become more common the older an individual gets. In fact, 27 percent of all seniors over the age of 65 have lost all of their teeth, usually as a result of gum disease.
Until now, the options for correcting permanent tooth loss were limited to dental implant and dentures. But now researchers believe they may have taken one step closer to finding a way to help regenerate lost teeth by studying alligators.
For the first time, researchers at USC’s Keck School of Medicine have discovered the unique molecular and cellular mechanisms that American alligators use to regrow lost teeth. Researchers are hopeful that by better understanding how this process works in reptiles, they can duplicate it in humans.
The results of this study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While humans only develop two sets of teeth (baby and adult), reptiles can continue to replace lost teeth throughout their lifetime. The fact humans can only grow one set of replacement teeth seems strange to researchers considering the body still maintains a band of epithelial tissues referred to as the dental lamina, which plays a vital role in tooth growth. Because the dental lamina remains intact, researchers suspect there may be a way to stimulate tooth growth using stem cells.
Researchers selected alligators as a model to study because the reptile has a well-organized tooth structure similar to mammalian teeth and they can continuous regrow teeth as they age. Additionally, alligator teeth are fixed to sockets of dental bone, just as human teeth.
To study how alligators successfully regrow their teeth, researchers used microscopic imaging techniques, which allowed them to find that each tooth an alligator possesses is made of three components: a functional tooth, a replacement tooth, and the dental lamina. An alligator’s teeth are designed to smoothly transition from the loss of a functional tooth to the replacement tooth without interfering with the reptile’s ability to feed. While examining the process by which a functional tooth is lost and replaced, researchers discovered that the reptile’s dental lamina contain stem cells that help to stimulate the growth of a replacement tooth.
Researchers hope that by isolating this stage of tooth development in alligators they can duplicate the process in humans. Even though this process remains years away from becoming perfected, it does offer hope that future generations may enjoy better oral health than seniors today.
A Growing Concern
A recent Global Burden of Disease study conducted by researchers at the University of London found that nearly half of the world’s population suffers from moderate to severe tooth decay. Early stage tooth decay can lead to the development of gum disease –which ranks as the leading cause of adult tooth loss- when left untreated.
Even though the standard of dental care in the U.S. remains as some of the world’s best, millions of Americans suffer from decay and gum disease that could eventually lead to permanent tooth loss. While practicing better oral hygiene would help prevent the majority of cases of tooth loss, a growing number of prescription medications carry side effects such as dry mouth that can contribute to decay. So while it may take time for researchers to successfully isolate and duplicate how alligators regrow lost teeth, the need for such study only becomes more apparent after assessing the state of the world’s teeth.