Researchers use light to coax stem cells to repair teeth

The team used high-resolution x-ray imaging and microscopy techniques to assess the formation of reparative (tertiary) dentin 12 weeks after the low-power laser treatment. In the microscopy images shown here, the yellow hashtags (#) sit atop the newly-formed tertiary dentin; there is more tertiary dentin in the laser-treated teeth than in the control. (Credit: Harvard’s Wyss Institute and SEAS)

A Harvard-led team is the first to demonstrate the ability to use low-power light to trigger stem cells inside the body to regenerate tissue, an advance they reported in Science Translational Medicine.

The research, led by Wyss Institute Core Faculty member David Mooney, Ph.D., lays the foundation for a host of clinical applications in restorative dentistry and regenerative medicine more broadly, such as wound healing, bone regeneration, and more.

The team used a low-power laser to trigger human dental stem cells to form dentin, the hard tissue that is similar to bone and makes up the bulk of teeth. What’s more, they outlined the precise molecular mechanism involved, and demonstrated its prowess using multiple laboratory and animal models.

“Our treatment modality does not introduce anything new to the body, and lasers are routinely used in medicine and dentistry, so the barriers to clinical translation are low,” said Mooney

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Growing New Teeth Just a Stem Cell Away?

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Stem cells derived from urine can be used to generate tooth-like structures, reports a study published this week in the open access Cell Regeneration Journal.

It’s thought the technique might one day help researchers grow new, tailor-made teeth for dental patients.

That stem cells can be generated from urine is not new; previous studies have shown that cells discarded in human urine can be coaxed to become induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which themselves can generate many different cell types, including neurons and heart muscle cells. But researchers had yet to generate solid organs or tissues from iPSCs – until now.

Duanqing Pei and colleagues have developed a novel chimeric tissue culture system to coax human urine-derived iPSCs into tiny structures that resemble teeth. The system mimics normal tooth development, which results from an interaction between two different cell types; epithelial cells, which give rise to enamel, and mesenchymal cells, which give rise to the other three main components of teeth (dentin, cementum and pulp).

First, the team used chemicals to coax the cultured iPSCs into flat sheets of epithelial cells. They then mixed these cells with mouse embryonic mesenchymal cells, and transplanted them into mice. Three weeks later, tooth-like structures had grown.

The primitive teeth-like organs are structurally and physically similar to human teeth. They are of roughly the same elasticity, and contain pulp, dentin and enamel-forming cells. But the method has its limitations – it involves mouse cells, has a success rate of around 30% and the structures were about one-third of the hardness of human teeth.

To resolve these issues, human mesenchymal stem cells could be substituted for mouse ones and the tissue culture conditions tweaked. The revised method could, in theory, be used to create a bioengineered tooth bud that could be cultured in vitro then transplanted into the jawbone of a needy patient to form a fully functional tooth.

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