Teeth are curious things. These elegant little bits of bone, dentin, and enamel serve a wide range of purposes, from cutting and crushing food to serving as convenient physical accomplices to our emotional expressions. Important as they are, our pearly whites are not particularly trustworthy subjects. They turn mutinous and macabre when left neglected, decaying and rotting into stumps, splitting open at the seams and generally turning our mouths into hellish harbingers of suffering.


Have hope, you aching, teeth-troubled homo sapiens. Help may be on the way, in the form of lasers and stem cells.


In a study published in Science Translational Medicine, researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute drilled holes in the molars of rats and directed a precisely calibrated laser at stem cells in the pulp of the tooth. The laser pulled certain cell proteins into action, creating bone-like tissue known as dentin, which constitutes most of a tooth’s substance. The rat molars were capped and observed over a period of 12 weeks, resulting in the build-up of brand new tissues. Destroyed teeth, regrown from the inside.


Laser treatments have long been a subject of curiosity to scientists. Properly balanced, lasers can jolt dormant biological mechanisms into action, facilitating hair regrowth, skin replenishment and numerous other organic benefits. The art of laser therapy remains a mystery, though, dogged by the difficulty of finding correct calibrations and pinning down just what role lasers play in re-starting the mini-cycles of life.


The Harvard study was the first of its kind to pinpoint the biological processes affected by laser light treatment, observing the way lasers encouraged reactive oxygen species to activate cellular proteins to form dentin. The discovery opens new realms for stem cell research, as an increasing body of knowledge on the eddies of life at the molecular level generate huge leaps in sophistication and refined techniques.


The Wyss Institute researches are currently pushing for human trials, championing their techniques as minimally invasive and free of the ethical and regulatory concerns usually associated with stem cell experimentation. In the near future, laser light treatment could abolish the need for root canals, a potential benefit that deserves a round of wild drinking in its honor. On a grander scale, regenerative stem cell therapy techniques like those used in the Harvard study could eventually knit together broken bones and bind up torn muscles. There remains a ways yet to go, but the Wyss study is a tantalizing glimpse of bright horizons.


What do you think of this innovation in science and health? Does this take the terror out of the dentist for you, or are you not convinced by the stem cell experiment? Let’s talk here, or find me on Twitter @aa_murph