What if tooth decay could be eliminated and getting cavity fillings was a thing of the past? That reality might not be too far off — dentists in the United Kingdom discovered that a common drug used to treat Alzheimer’s could also be used to repair tooth decay.
Usually, this type of treatment works by helping the tooth’s natural ability to repair itself through the activation of stem cells in the soft pulp at the center. It’s mostly been used to treat small cracks and holes in the dentine, which is the solid bulk of the tooth beneath the surface enamel.
But now scientists believe that utilizing an Alzheimer’s drug could enhance the tooth’s ability to rebuild cavities extending from the surface to the root. This breakthrough study was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“Almost everyone on the planet has tooth decay at some time – it’s a massive volume of people being treated,” Professor Paul Sharpe, who led the work at King’s College London, said. “We’ve deliberately tried to make something really simple, really quick and really cheap.”
The researchers conducted initial trials on mice, whose tooth defects were filled with a biodegradable sponge soaked in an Alzheimer’s drug called tideglusib, which is known to be clinically safe. When they checked on the teeth several weeks later, they found that the mice’s teeth were able to gradually rebuild themselves.
Restoring the tooth’s dentine structure is better than dental cements used in fillings, which over time weaken the tooth and leave it vulnerable to future decay or erosion. In other words, this new method, if proven successful on a larger scale, has the potential to eliminate these issues, according to the study’s authors.
“The tooth is not just a lump of mineral, it’s got its own physiology. You’re replacing a living tissue with an inert cement,” said Sharpe. “Fillings work fine, but if the tooth can repair itself, surely [that’s] the best way. You’re restoring all the vitality of the tooth.”
Unfortunately, this new treatment does not mean that you’re finally free of the dreaded dentist’s drill, since the decayed sections of the tooth will have to be removed anyway.
Now, the researchers need to determine if this breakthrough is scalable to human teeth in which cavities are much larger. In order to do so, the team is testing this technique on rats, whose teeth are nearly four times larger than those of mice. If the latest trial proves successful, they hope to apply later this year to conduct the first clinical trials on patients.
“Dentistry is not only about filling and drilling but also about keeping the teeth healthy,” Ben Scheven, an oral cell biologist at the University of Birmingham, told the Guardian. “Especially since it’s an accessible and cheap treatment I can imagine this being used in the clinic.”
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.