Growing a whole new tooth outside the body, artificially, is set to become reality in the not-too-distant future. Working with high-risk research funding from the Academy of Finland, University of Helsinki researcher Anamaria Balic is exploring means to grow whole teeth in vitro using dental stem cells. The results of Balic’s project could revolutionise the dental research field.
“My scientific interest in general is to understand how teeth develop from stem cells both in vivo and in vitro. The main focus of our research project is to generate enamel, mineralised tissue, something that has never been done in vitro – though not for a lack of trying,” says Balic.
Generating enamel is no easy task
Enamel is the hardest mineral tissue in the human body. It protects our teeth and gives them strength to mince our food. The problem, says Balic, is that enamel is sensitive to various physical and chemical agents and that it wears off as we age. Enamel erosion cannot be repaired because the cells capable of generating enamel are lost early in childhood.
“Humans are incapable of regenerating enamel or other dental tissues. Rodents, however, continuously generate all dental tissues including enamel. That’s why I’m using mouse models to unravel how tooth stem cells differentiate into enamel-producing cells, or ameloblasts,” explains Balic.
The major reason why researchers until now have been unsuccessful in generating teeth in vitro is the inability to mimic the processes that occur during in vivo tooth development.
“It’s very difficult to generate tooth tissues artificially. Developing mineralised tooth tissue, such as enamel, involves complex changes in the shape and morphology of the cells. The current in vitro culture systems do not support the differentiation of ameloblasts or appropriate enamel patterning,” says Balic.
A natural alternative to prosthetic teeth
The results of the research project are applicable in clinical practice and in supporting dental care. The results would make it possible to generate dental tissue that could be used in reparative dentistry.
“We’re trying to develop a natural method to replace missing teeth or repair teeth. Dental prostheses and implants are artificial and sometimes short-lived solutions. Prosthetic teeth combined with bad oral hygiene, for example, can give rise to severe diseases. What’s more, dental care is expensive, especially if you have to replace fillings regularly. Fixing the issue at once with a new tooth or with new enamel would resolve these problems,” says Balic.
For the dental research field, Balic’s project may provide groundbreaking results that would end the decades-long pursuit to grow enamel.
“Finland has a long tradition of substantial contributions to the dental and developmental biology research fields. The successful completion of this study would ascertain our leading position within the international dental research community.”
Research to improve quality of life
“Science should be progressive and challenging so that it can improve society and quality of life,” says Balic. In high-risk projects, researchers must plan and prepare for failure, too.
The Academy of Finland’s separate funding for high-risk projects, says Balic, can only have a positive influence on Finnish science. As a foreigner, she is proud to be part of this influence.
“Funding high-risk projects at a time when most countries are reducing their research expenditure shows the progressiveness and forward-thinking of the Academy of Finland and Finland in general. For me, the funding gives encouragement and motivation to do my best to complete the project successfully. I want to ensure that this kind of funding will be available to my fellow scientists in the future as well.”
Finnish text by Anna-Riikka Oravakangas
Photo by Anita Westerback
- Academy of Finland supports scientific risk-taking with purpose-made funding (Academy press release, 2 Sep 2015)