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Progressive Dentistry: It's Alive!

Maybe I'm a bit weird but I enjoy dental hygiene visits. It's relaxing, afterwards my teeth feel like polished pearls, and I get to indulge in "shop talk" with the hygienist -- who's more than happy to share what she's learned from dental conferences attended between our appointments. Of course, she does most of the talking as there's an ultrasonic scaler and saliva ejector down my throat, but I'm all ears! 
She recently returned from a dental conference in Tampa, FL where they discussed a procedure involving laser treatment to significantly combat gum disease. She said, the procedure is used in conjunction with SRP. Pardon if this is a gross simplification, but basically the laser is able to reach areas far under the gingival tissue and remove infection, as well as promote faster healing and gum tissue regeneration (which brings me to my next point). While listening intently, I immediately thought of tweet I saw last week that went something like, "Harvard scientists #regrow teeth!" Being the dental geek that I am, I had to investigate...
Well, slap my face and call me Igor. Frankenstein needs a new tooth!
Regrowing body parts sounds like something straight out of a H.G. Wells novel or mad science-fiction film. Historically, unlike low-level laser therapy (LLLT), bio-medical engineering is nothing new. However, it's the recent advancements I find particularly interesting. Pondering the implications of stem cell research and its impact on modern medicine is fascinating to say the least.  In so far, scientists and engineers have put their head together and managed to bio-engineer a fully functioning heart valve via CAD/CAM 3-D bio-printing. Now some of you may already have an idea of where this going, as CAD/CAM technology is already in use in dentistry to fabricate crowns...but trust me...wait for it. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), 3-D bio-printers are also able to "deposit ultra-thin layers of living cells upon each other, following a precise geometric pattern that matches the heart valve dimensions, building the part vertically as the layers accumulate. Over a period of hours the final tissue construct is completed." Here is the impressive result:

A 3-D print of an artificial heart valve.
Image courtesy of Jonathan T. Butcher, Cornell University
Meanwhile, similar efforts are being made to "regrow" other body parts and/or living tissue, including teeth. Specifically dentin in this case because teeth are primarily composed of dentin -- a hard, bony-like tissue directly under the enamel layer of our teeth. In a recent study conducted by the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science, the SEAS research team (led by David J. Mooney along with NIH assistant clinical investigator, author, and dentist Praveen Arany, Ph.D) utilized a low-power laser to induce the stem cell growth of human dental tissue. Through ongoing research the team was able to pinpoint the molecular structure(s) responsible for dentin regeneration, and proved their findings on lab rats (whose dental composition is striking similar to that of humans).  I warned you this sounded like something out of a science fiction movie. However, it's neither fiction, nor are the implications all that scary in my opinion. Stem cell research has come far but still has a long way to go. Furthermore, there is much ethical controversy surrounding it. All the same, there's no debating that these recent findings mark the medical frontier of restorative dentistry.

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