What Teeth May Come.
Bolouri says researchers already are regenerating bone to which teeth are anchored. Bone deterioration, or severe periodontal disease, is a problem for replacing teeth because the bone won't hold dentures or implants.
Because of this, MacDougall says there is a new incentive to learn more about tooth regeneration.
"We are now looking at making human teeth in a laboratory dish that could be used instead of implants on titanium posts," she says. "They would look better, wear better, and last longer then current implants."
Implants sometimes don't work because the artificial materials don't bond with the bone, and there can be severe problems with inflammation or the body may even reject the foreign material, MacDougall says. Using cells from a person's body to grow a new tooth should overcome these problems.
Although all the cells in your body have the same genes, different genes are active in different cells that allows, say, a liver cell to function differently from a skin cell. MacDougall and her colleagues are tracking down the subset of genes that function only when teeth are forming. Once the researchers have this information, she believes that they can use the genes to correct orthodontic diseases.
"We think we can do this by injecting these specific genes into the developing teeth," MacDougall explains. "We can treat every individual tooth as an individual organ. This genetic information would not make sense to cells in other parts of the body since these are specific to teeth."
The information also would allow scientists to develop genetic screening tests to determine who is at greatest risk for tooth decay and periodontal disease. Then doctors could use the gene therapy to prevent or treat these disorders, MacDougall theorizes.
MacDougall -- who began this line of research 15 years ago -- believes that tooth regeneration and gene therapy will be available for people of all ages. She says it will be especially important for children who receive trauma to the mouth, and aging baby boomers and their children.
"The U.S. population is graying and they want to keep their teeth longer; they don't want to wear dentures," MacDougall says.