If you live in fear of getting a root canal, there may be promising news for you.
Researchers are developing a new type of filling they say can help restore decaying teeth and potentially eliminate the need for a root canal.
It may be many years before this stem cell technology is used in dental practices. But the hope is the fillings can be used before severe decay and infection sets in.
The process of applying these fillings to a decaying tooth is similar to that for traditional fillings, but the way they work once applied is quite different.
“As opposed to dental fillings, these materials have functions that enable them to stimulate stem cells within the pulp tissue to enable tissues lost through tooth decay to be restored,” Dr. Adam Celiz, one of the researchers and an assistant professor of bioengineering at Imperial College London, told Healthline.
Although the new fillings wouldn’t completely eliminate root canals, they could minimize the number of these painful surgeries.
The root of the problem
During a root canal procedure, infected pulp tissue is removed from the tooth, leaving a cavity that is then filled.
If the new fillings are used early enough, the decaying pulp tissue could regenerate, and the root canal procedure may not be necessary.
Celiz is hopeful this approach would enable teeth to return to a healthy state.
“Root canals are very successful at what they are designed to do. However, once a tooth has undergone root canal treatment, it has little to no chance of recovering its initial healthy state. This approach could allow for intermediate clinical procedures to occur whereby these materials can regenerate dental tissues at an earlier time point prior to severe decay and infection,” he said.
Celiz’s research is still in the early stages, with further testing required before the fillings could be used clinically. The next stage of testing will be on rodents, before a clinical study on people can begin.
Dr. Mo Kang is a professor and chair of the Section of Endodontics at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Dentistry.
He says there have been a few examples of using stem cell therapy for fillings in recent literature.
“The technology is already here to regrow the vital tissues in the root canal space. The challenge is whether the vital tissue can function as normal pulp tissue,” he told Healthline
“The benefit of this approach is to restore the normal dental pulp function in the root canal space, which is otherwise filled with rubbery material… the tooth may be able to feel cold, hot, pain, and other sensation, and may be able to restore the defense mechanisms, which are vital for the longevity of tooth,” he added.
A common condition
According to the American Association of Endodontics, more than 15 million root canals are performed every year in the United States. That’s about 40,000 procedures a day.
Tooth decay is preventable, but 90 percent of U.S. adults have had a cavity, and one in four have untreated cavities.
Although tooth decay can be dealt with easily if detected early, delaying going to the dentist could lead to problems.
“If tooth decay is discovered by the dentist and treated early, a simple filling will solve the problem. However, if the decay is left unattended, it can get more serious and require a root canal. If the root canal isn’t performed in a timely manner, decay can lead to an abscess and is some cases hospitalization. Unfortunately, there are people who have died if the tooth infection gets treated too late or not at all,” Dr. Rico Short, spokesperson for the American Dental Association, told Healthline.
Presently, a root canal is the only procedure that can save an infected or severely damaged tooth. It’s also the only procedure that can eliminate tooth pain instantly.
“Many times, tooth pain can be difficult to detect the location [of] and diagnose the source of the problem. Tooth pain can mimic a sinus infection, TMJ problems, and even the beginning stages of a heart attack. So if you’re experiencing anything out of the ordinary, make sure to see a dental professional as soon as possible,” Short said.
It may be many years until these fillings are used in dentists’ offices, but Celiz said the technology could change the dental industry.
“This approach has the potential to be disruptive to dental practice as we are trying to introduce concepts from regenerative medicine and tissue engineering into the dental clinic,” he said.
Should Celiz’s fillings pass clinical tests, training for future dentists may also change.
“Pulp regeneration will be a highly specialized procedure to be performed at the specialty level; dentists in the future will need to be well trained in the underlying biology of pulp regeneration procedure and require further training,” Kang said.