Those who live in fear of the infamous root canal – maligned worldwide for its painful nature and disliked for the fact that it kills the tooth – will find relief in the news that researchers have found a promising alternative in the form of stem cell fillings. This approach relies on treating root causes and conditions (no pun intended) rather than treating surface symptoms. The goal of regenerative medicine? To return former functionality to the body – in this case, the tooth.
The goal behind stem cell fillings is to repair the tooth as though the damage had never occurred. Of course, this approach raises many questions. How is it different than a root canal? Where do you get the stem cells? Are there risks involved? The goal of this article is to answer these questions.
Can Stem Cell Fillings Replace a Root Canal Procedure?
According to the most recent statistics from the American Dental Association Survey of Dental Services Rendered, 15.1 million root canal procedures occurred in 2005-2006. The report by the American Association of Endodontists further says that 10.9 million of those were performed by dentists, and 4.2 million of them were performed by root canal specialists.
These statistics, old as they are, paint a compelling picture of the number of people receiving root canal treatments every year. Considering a population of about 300 million in 2006, about 5 percent of people undergo a root canal every year.
Doubtless, these statistics are skewed by people who have more than one procedure. But the numbers still indicate a lot of people are undergoing root canal procedures. The obvious question becomes, is there an alternative?
In order to make a direct comparison between treatment options, it is important to understand what a root canal is.
What Is a Root Canal?
A root canal is a procedure whereby a dentist or specialist operates on an infected tooth. They drill into the tooth, remove the pulp and clean out the cavity, then fill it. This leaves the tooth anchored in your jaw, so you can use it for years to come, even though it is now technically dead.
One of the greatest misunderstandings about root canals is that they annihilate healthy teeth. In many cases, the tooth would die no matter what, because the infection is severe enough that left untreated, it would eventually decay away and fall out – only on a longer and more painful timeline.
Although healing from a root canal may cause pain, dentists assure that the pain is likely less than what the sufferer has experienced due to the abscessed tooth. Plus, the procedure is very routine, so there is little danger of an accident.
Can Root Canals Be Dangerous?
What is the danger, then? It comes in several forms. First, many people believe that dentists perform root canals when the tooth is still healthy. This limits its chance to heal on its own.
Secondly, strong research points to the fact that root canal operations leave bacteria, yeast, and other pathogens behind. This could happen despite the most rigorous decontamination procedures during the treatment and the most faithful cleansing routines on the patient’s part afterward. These bacteria can then grow down in the root canal chamber. This increases the risk of contributing both to periodontal diseases and potentially to other, seemingly unrelated pathologies, such as Alzheimer’s disease and atherosclerosis.
Part of the problem is that, when dentists remove healthy tissue, they reduce the immune resources present in the pulp. As a result, this provides bacteria with a place to thrive uninhibited. Of course, this is not the intention. It is critical to note that as of right now, there is no plan to replace root canals. Given the dangers though, exploring alternatives is intriguing.
What Is a Stem Cell Filling?
Stem cell fillings may prove to be a good treatment option for teeth that are not severely damaged by bacteria. After all, the tooth is already capable of producing new pulp tissue and the dentin that makes up the tooth structure through the use of dental stem cells.
Dental stem cells are blank cells found inside the tooth already. They are capable of transforming into whatever tooth cell is needed at the moment. Known as mesenchymal stem cells, which are multipotent stem cells capable of turning into a variety of tissue types, these cells abound in wisdom teeth and baby teeth.
The idea behind stem cell fillings is that, rather than filling the tooth with inert matter, one can instead perform the same procedure as a root canal, but fill it with living cells to repopulate the tooth instead. This form of stem cell therapy can theoretically return the tooth to a healthy state, preventing the need to have root canal treatments redone later.
How Do Physicians Obtain Stem Cells to Use in Treating Teeth?
While it’s all well and good to note that stem cells already exist in teeth, that doesn’t eliminate the need to obtain them. So how exactly do researchers and scientists – and eventually dentists – obtain these cells?
The procedure used to obtain stem cells from teeth begins with harvesting the tooth itself. Strict selection criteria include ensuring that the tooth is still living, that the tooth has a sufficient amount of pulp, and that ideally, it is not infected. Once the specialist has the tooth in hand, they will preserve it by sending it to a stem cell bank for cryogenic preservation. While competitors do exist, BioEden is the world’s leading provider of dental stem cell storage services. When someone has a need for these cells, a technician can thaw them and make them ready for use.
That describes an allogeneic stem cell donation procedure, though. This is when a patient uses stem cells from another person. What about individual patients who want to use their own stem cells? This is possible as well.
Mesenchymal stem cells don’t just reside in the teeth. They are also located in bone marrow, blood, fat (known as adipose tissue), and a few other places throughout the body. Hypothetically, physicians could harvest a patient’s own mesenchymal stem cells for use. They can then re-inject them back into the patient at a later date.
It’s not enough simply to harvest and re-inject stem cells from teeth, however. Scientists must first encourage those cells in a lab to transition from their blank state to specific tooth cells. Then have to encourage them to grow in their new environment, which does come with risks.
Risks of Root Canals vs. Stem Cells
Unfortunately, one of the biggest risks associated with stem cells comes from the fact that in order to successfully repopulate the tooth, stem cells must have the ability to proliferate rapidly in their new environment. Plenty of research has demonstrated that while stem cells often fill their intended niche quite nicely, some types of stem cells known as pluripotent stem cells can grow out of control and become tumors.
Thankfully, most types of adult stem cells, such as those present within the teeth, are multipotent. Multipotent means that they are limited in their proliferative capacity and less likely to grow out of control.
Research reported in Scientific American also indicates that with careful control of the drugs administered and other safeguards, the stem cell procedure should produce fairly controlled results. Of course, these are mouse studies. Consequently, more research and human trials must ensue before anyone can draw clear conclusions.
Learn more about stem cell fillings for dental care with this video from Science & Human Life.
Root canals often deliver a permanent solution to what might actually represent a temporary problem: tooth infection. With this new tool in hand, dentists will have the ability to treat teeth without killing them. In turn, they can potentially deliver new life to millions of teeth that have lots of life left.
If you’d like to stay up to date in the field of stem cell research, join more than 500,000 other industry leaders on BioInformant, the world’s largest stem cell industry blog.
Which tooth infection treatment would you prefer and why? Let us know what you think in the comments below.