Scientists in China have developed a gel containing mineral clusters found naturally in teeth. The gel encourages the growth of crystals in partially acid-damaged tooth enamel to restore it to its original shape.
The method has yet to be tested in humans, but one day, it could mean an end to painful needles and the dreaded drill.
Read more: How often should I get my teeth cleaned?
What is tooth enamel?
The enamel is the topmost layer on our teeth. It protects them from damage. The enamel also protects us against pain and sensitivity.
If this protective coating erodes, our teeth become more vulnerable to cavities (holes) and may need dental treatments, such as fillings.
The enamel is the outermost layer of our teeth. Shutterstock.com
Tooth enamel is composed of the same minerals as bone, calcium, and phosphate. Enamel contains more minerals than bone, but the crystals of enamel are arranged into a complex geometrical arrangement.
The enamel crystals look like spaghetti strands or long ribbons under a microscope. The crystal strands can be arranged into clusters that are oriented at 60 degrees, similar to packets of dried spaghetti. Rods and inter-rods are the ribbon clusters that weave together like a honeycomb.
This weave is hard to recreate when destroyed because it is impossible to replace the enamel cells as they die at the time our teeth emerge out of our gums.
Why does tooth enamel erode over time?
Enamel is hard but also fragile and susceptible to erosion. It happens when the mineral in our teeth dissolves in our saliva.
When we get acid in our mouth (a bad guy), the mineral in our saliva (a good guy) tries to bind with it and neutralize it. The mineral in our saliva (as a good guy) tries to bind with the acid (a bad guy). This balances the acid and prevents it from harming us. This is called buffering.
We run out of minerals to buffer an “acid attack” if there is too much acid or the quantity and quality of our saliva are inadequate. In a last effort to neutralize acidity, the minerals in our teeth dissolve into froth. The teeth will erode at this point and become more vulnerable.
Read more: Child tooth decay is on the rise, but few are brushing their teeth enough or seeing the dentist.
Like the erosion we see in our beaches and river beds, under a microscope, eroded enamel surfaces appear moth-eaten and uneven. This is because erosion destroys the crystal organization I described above.
Dentists recommend products that repair enamel, but they cannot recreate the complex crystal structure needed to create a pearly-white shimmer. The dental community is very excited by this research.
Can we control erosion?
When we consume and drink acidic foods, such as wine, cola drinks, fruit juices, sodas, lollies, and energy or sports drinks, our teeth will erode. Acid is found in anything that tastes sour. Avoid or limit the consumption of acidic foods and beverages whenever possible.
Patients with medical conditions like acid retching or bulimia are at a higher risk of having their teeth worn down. It’s important to get regular dental checks if you have these conditions.
We all know that lollies are bad for your teeth. Acid in sour candy can cause erosion. Shutterstock.com
Our teeth will appear yellower when our enamel is eroded. We may experience sensitivity or toothache if we have lost the natural enamel insulation.
A dentist or dental hygienist can help you maintain your oral health if your teeth are eroding. Your dental professional also recommends brushing your teeth and cleaning the spaces between them.
Rinsing your mouth with bicarbonate-salt water mouthwash
Chewing sugar-free gum can increase mineral-rich saliva
Use a toothpaste, mouthwash, or special cream recommended by your dentist to replace mineral lost and repair teeth
Delaying the cleaning of your teeth after a “acid attack” will prevent the enamel from being removed.
Read more: Two million Aussies delay or don’t go to the dentist – here’s how we can fix that
How did the scientists regrow enamel?
In the lab, teeth extracted from patients were first treated with acid in order to simulate erosion. Then, they were painted with a gel. This gel was made up of calcium phosphate clusters, which are mineral clusters found naturally in teeth. It also contained triethylamine.
Using a special microscope, the previously eroded elastin was examined for its size, shape, and composition.
The crystal clusters were oriented correctly to create the honeycomb rods and inter-rods.
When will we be in a position to regrow our enamel?
The short answer is, “not yet”. This study was only performed on extracted teeth. Researchers hope to test the method first on mice and then humans in a short time.
The toxicity of TEA, the main ingredient in the product, is a significant obstacle to human and animal trials. The enamel thickness that they could repair was only at the microscopic level.