Hate trips to the dentist? Spare a thought for a young man from Tuscany some 13,000 years ago. His remains, found in the 1990s, revealed one of the earliest ever examples of a dental filling – made from hair, vegetable fibres and an oily substance similar to bitumen (now used to surface roads).
Dental treatments have come a long way since then. But due to sugary diets and poor brushing techniques, more than three-quarters of British adults have lost at least one tooth, and 80 per cent have fillings. However, medical advancements are set to revolutionise the field of dentistry.
‘Regrowing our own damaged teeth could even be possible in future,’ says Professor Damien Walmsley, scientific adviser to the British Dental Association.
From drugs that fix decaying teeth to a jolt of electricity to replace fillings, here are the dental innovations of the future.
New developments in oral healthcare could see the dentist’s drill consigned to history
Pill gets teeth to fix themselves
The holy grail of dental care, experts say, is finding a way to tackle tooth decay without the need to drill a hole and insert a filling.
Currently, dentists drill out decayed tooth tissue to form a cavity into which a filling can fit.
But experts at King’s College, London have discovered how to prompt teeth to repair themselves instead. It’s an unlikely remedy – a drug initially developed to fight Alzheimer’s disease.
Called Tideglusib, the pill never proved that successful in helping dementia sufferers. But it did stimulate stem cells deep inside teeth to grow into odontoblasts – cells that make up dentine. This is the material inside the tooth that supports enamel, the hard protective coating which protects against damage.
The King’s team soaked a biodegradable sponge in a solution containing the drug and placed it inside the damaged teeth of mice.
As the sponge broke down, new layers of dentine formed.
The team are now testing the technique on rats – their teeth are four times bigger than those of mice – before moving on to human studies in the next two or three years.
Gel that repairs decaying enamel
Teeth have a hard outer layer of enamel, made up of the minerals calcium and phosphate.
Its job is to protect the softer inner layers against decay, but it is worn down by acid and repeated chewing. Once it is destroyed, the body can’t produce more as, unlike bone, it contains no living cells. Holes in enamel expose the softer inner part of the tooth to damage which can lead to complete tooth loss. Now scientists at Zhejiang University in China have developed a gel made with calcium and phosphate to encourage teeth to self-repair.
The clear gel is rubbed on the teeth as soon as they start to show signs of decay.
Due to sugary diets and poor brushing techniques, more than three-quarters of British adults have lost at least one tooth, and 80 per cent have fillings
Scientists took human teeth and deliberately damaged them with acid before soaking them in the gel for 48 hours. Remarkably, the damaged teeth rapidly grew a brand new layer of protective enamel.
Scientists say the calcium and phosphate particles in the gel stick to the rough surface of the tooth and are evenly distributed, allowing a smooth coating of enamel to form. The gel is currently being tested on mice, and human trials could be up and running in the next two years.
‘Dracula’ drug kills bad breath
It’s every romantic partner’s worst nightmare – a whiff of rancid breath. The embarrassing problem, caused by sulphur compounds released by bacteria in the mouth, affects about one in four people. Now clinical trials could herald the end of chronic bad breath, also called halitosis, with photodynamic therapy, which is already used to tackle some cancers.
First, a drug called Photofrin is injected into the bloodstream. Photofrin is light-sensitive and inactive until it is exposed to a laser light. A dentist shines a laser on to the tongue, activating the drug and killing the halitosis-causing bacteria.
Photodynamic therapy has become known as the ‘Dracula treatment’ because it kills only bacteria, or cancer cells, when exposed to light, much like how the fictional count’s powers waned in sunlight. A current trial on 40 patients in Brazil could lead to light therapy being widely used in the next five to ten years.
Jolt of electricity kick-starts healing
On average, Britons have seven fillings. They have been the mainstay of dental repair for more than 200 years but metal ones – made with copper, mercury, silver or tin – can corrode and need replacing every ten to 15 years. Plastic and glass alternatives can wear out even more quickly.
Worse still, patients also endure the dreaded sound of the dentist’s drill as a rotten tooth is cleared to make way for the filling. But the drill’s days may be numbered, thanks to a treatment involving a quick, painless jolt of electricity.
A team of scientists, also at King’s College, London, are investigating the technique. Similar to the gel, it rebuilds the hard enamel coating when it has decayed.
First, the damaged teeth are coated with a liquid solution containing calcium and phosphate, which is then zapped with a mild electric current.This forces the minerals deeper into the tooth, where they strengthen it from the inside out.
The technique is called electrically accelerated and enhanced remineralisation, and a company called Reminova has been formed to commercialise the treatment.
Scientists say it can heal small- to-medium cavities without using drills, local anaesthetic injections or fillings. It could potentially be made available privately within the next couple of years.
A mouthwash to deep-clean teeth
Even with the highest-grade anti-bacterial mouthwash, bugs still lurk inside your mouth. Mostly, they are in the form of an ultra- thin sticky layer of scum called a biofilm. This penetrates areas where a toothbrush and dental floss cannot reach and is hard to break up, causing decay.
But a team at Pennsylvania University’s School of Dental Medicine is developing a high-tech mouthwash to strip this harmful biofilm from any part of the teeth or gums. It is made with iron-oxide nanoparticles – each one smaller than a speck of dust – which break up biofilms, destroying bacteria.
These particles can also be ‘steered’ into hard-to-reach areas of the mouth using a magnet rotated externally around the face and chin. In tests, they gave the teeth a perfect shine and also cleaned tough-to-reach areas such as the isthmus of the tooth – a small channel found deep in the roots.
Researchers are now turning the technology into a dental treatment to replace manually scraping tartar – the hardened form of bacteria that forms on the surfaces of teeth.