Scientists Have Found A Way For Cavities To Repair Themselves–But Don’t Stop Flossing Yet

The breakthrough is a big deal for dental science, but dentists caution that a mouse cavity is very different from a human cavity.

Scientists Have Found A Way For Cavities To Repair Themselves–But Don’t Stop Flossing Yet
[Photo: goa_novi/iStock]

Nobody likes going to the dentist. And why should we? Dental and periodontal care is expensive, scheduling an appointment is a hassle, and that’s before discussing the actual pain of the procedure.


But will the dentist soon just become a scary bedtime story we tell our children? In England, a team at King’s College in London has found a new stress- and pain-free way to fix up holes and other decay in teeth. It turns out that low doses of the small molecule inhibitor glycogen kinase (GSK-3) encourages new formation of dentin, the calcified tissue that makes up your teeth.

In the lab test, clinically approved biodegradable sponges soaked with the drugs, including Tideglusib (currently in trials as an Alzheimer’s treatment), were inserted into holes in the teeth of mice. The teeth were then sealed with glass ionomer cement, the fashionable tooth-colored alternative to traditional metal amalgam fillings. Over the course of four to six weeks, dentin took the place of the collagen sponge, “leading to a complete, effective natural repair.”

[Illustration: mstroz/iStock]

“The space occupied by the sponge becomes full of minerals as the dentine regenerates so you don’t have anything in there to fail in the future,” researcher Paul T. Sharpe told the BBC. “I don’t think it’s massively long term, it’s quite low-hanging fruit in regenerative medicine and hopeful in a three-to-five year period this would be commercially available.”

In other words, this fix not only promises to be just as durable as traditional century-old filling techniques, but also find its way into your dentists offices before you know it. Or maybe not.

“The jump from tiny cavities in tiny mice teeth to the human dental situation is considerable,” says Dr. Gene LaBarre, a full-time prosthodontics faculty member at University of the Pacific, who has also served as department chair of Removable and Implant Prosthodontics for 20 years (he’s also the father of Co.Design‘s editor).

“The speculation that this approach will compete with, or eliminate, conventional dental fillings is very premature,” he told Co.Exist. “For shallow cavities, it is far from standard practice to drill into the nerve of the tooth . . . For deep cavities that already approach or invade the nerve, bacterial contamination and inflammation of the pulpal tissue will make regeneration of dentin far less predictable–or impossible.”


LaBarre has other reservations about the clinical suitability of self-repairing teeth, including that dentin is neither as hard nor as durable as enamel, any tooth’s original exterior, and that “repaired large cavities are subjected to considerable mechanical loads and hostile chemical environment.”

Critical as he may be, LaBarre is also impressed.

“The fact that the King’s team was able to stimulate nearly complete organic repair of experimental cavities is amazing. To my knowledge this is a first in the dental field . . . Although it may not revolutionize fillings and thus not merit much attention in the lay media, this type of incremental forward step is a big deal in our profession.”

If you’re worried about cavities and a long day at the dentist in the meantime, my advice (and Labarre’s) is this: Ignore those reports that said it does nothing and be sure to floss.

About the author

John Converse Townsend covers smart solutions to social problems, as a writer and social media producer for Fast Company. He likes: black coffee, Paul Pogba, and long runs.