When injury to a child’s tooth results in a condition known as pulp necrosis, apexification is the normal course of treatment. Although this treatment is successful for saving adult teeth, it does have its drawbacks. This has led a team of researchers from China and the University of Pennsylvania to seek out a new way to deal with dental injuries. They may have found it in stem cell therapy.
The researchers have discovered that stem cells extracted from baby teeth can be used to treat damaged adult teeth. The process is similar to one advocated by the Advanced Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) for treating osteoarthritis. Both procedures use autologous stem cells – stem cells provided by the patient being treated.
Childhood Dental Trauma
A Big Think article discussing the research states that “half of all children suffer some kind of dental injury while young.” Injuries do not necessarily have to be traumatic. They can be as simple as cavity-related infections. Regardless, the problem with childhood dental injuries is that they often lead to pulp necrosis, a condition in which the pulp inside the injured tooth dies and begins to decay.
Pulp necrosis is a serious condition. It causes extreme pain in the affected tooth, which is usually what drives a parent to get his or her child to the dentist. A diagnosis of pulp necrosis generally leads to the dentist performing the childhood equivalent of an adult root canal before sealing the tooth (apexification) to prevent further infection.
Unfortunately, the treatment does not always work. Apexification can save a damaged tooth to the extent that it does not have to be extracted, but there’s no guarantee that the tooth will grow new pulp. More often than not, the affected tooth remains dead in terms of sensation. It’s there in the mouth, but it’s not alive because there is no pulp within. If reinfection occurs, extraction is the best solution.
The Stem Cell Solution
The research team behind the previously mentioned study decided to use stem cells taken directly from patients being treated as an alternative to apexification. They obtained the stem cells from pulp taken from their patient’s existing baby teeth. The stem cells were then grown in a lab before being transplanted into damaged teeth that had been properly cleaned and evacuated.
Big Think reports that 40 children were treated as part of the study. Half the group received apexification treatment while the other half received stem cell treatment. Then each of the children was followed for up to three years. Those patients treated with stem cells exhibited better blood flow to the teeth, better root systems, and thicker dentin at follow-up.
A Better Approach on Multiple Levels
Assuming that the stem cell treatment shows just as efficacious in future studies, it would represent a better approach to treating pulp necrosis in children. It could even lead to additional treatments for adults who no longer have baby teeth to work with. But that remains to be seen.
Treating necrotic teeth with autologous stem cells is a better approach because it focuses on healing the damage rather than just mitigating the effects of that damage. If the treatment works, the patient is left with a normal, healthy tooth that still functions as intended.
Another benefit of the treatment is that it is virtually risk-free. Because stem cell material is donated by the patient being treated, there is no risk of rejection or complication. And because the procedure is no more invasive than a typical root canal, there is no increased risk of complications that would not be normally associated with apexification.