Regenerating tooth enamel

27 November 2018

Interview with

Alvaro Mata, Queen Mary University of London

If we don’t look after our teeth properly, the enamel that protects our teeth breaks down. And once it’s gone, currently, it can never be replaced. But now researchers from Queen Mary University of London may have developed a way around this. They’ve created a protein that works like a scaffold for enamel. It’s just the right shape, and has the correct chemical configuration, to extract from saliva the chemical building blocks of enamel. It then assembles into new enamel in-situ, stitching itself into the native tooth material in the process. So you could squirt it into a prepared tooth cavity and it would grow you a new, tough enamel coating. Alvaro Mata showed Izzie Clarke how...

Alvaro - I took a tooth out today to show it to you!

Izzie- Is that an actual tooth?

Alvaro -  This is an actual tooth. It actually has some lesions which is to show you the type of lesions that we would use these material.

Izzie- Gosh there are literally like black holes. And is that what fillings actually looks like.

Alvaro - These are actually fillings. What we are developing is some material that would be implanted instead of these fillings but that would actually look and behave like enamel. So what we are aiming to do is a material that can grow, it can behave as natural enamel and can also integrate with the natural tissue.

Izzie - So, say goodbye to fillings. This works by placing a protein onto the tooth that helps connective tissue and arranges itself into a highly ordered structure. And that's important: enamel is essentially tiny nano-crystals that are locked together, giving it its vital strength. Those developing crystals are then able to capture the calcium and phosphate ions that float around our mouths and keep building and building more crystals until the tooth is repaired. Alvaro lead me over to a giant clear box full of petri dishes and the cavity-ridden teeth in question. At the moment, this all-important process is divided into two stages.

Alvaro - In the first stage in this big, plastic box, what we have is a controlled environment where we can assemble this protein material directly on teeth.

Izzie - And that's to make sure the protein has a fighting start in attaching to the tooth and arranging itself in the most structured way possible.

Alvaro -  Then we take that protein material and we immerse it, we put it inside a solution that is recreating the mouth environment, recreates the conditions of saliva.

Izzie - For the second stage, we took the tooth out of the clear box and placed it into a beaker of watery looking solution which mimics the chemistry of our mouths. But, I really hoped that this wasn't someone's actual saliva.

Alcaro - Yes exactly, actually we're doing experiments with actual saliva, which is, yeah! For the moment we're working with a solution that looks like saliva. And so it again it gives us the opportunity to understand how different compositions of that solution can affect the growth of this mineral structure.

Izzie  - And so is that just full of, say like, calcium and the phosphates that you need then build up essentially.

Alvar - Correct. And so we have calcium and phosphate ions we have we control the acidity of the environment which is very important. And in general the environment that that is present in the mouth.

Izzie - And how’s it performed, what have you found, are you happy?

Alvaro -  Yeah. We have very promising results. So, acid resistance is similar to enamel, its stiffness is not quite that of enamel but we are getting close to it. The material is integrating with the tissue. The crystals are growing within the coding and also inside of the dentine tubules, inside of the natural tissue. So the integration is also an important goal that we are working on.

Izzie - Gosh that looks really promising. So in an ideal world, if that all happens, how would you then go to your local dentist and say “oh you know what, my teeth aren't feeling so good” - how would that work?

Alvaro -  Yeah. So what we're hoping is to develop a material that the dentist would be able to apply directly on the tooth of patients in an easy way, just like you go now and there are other material that are being put in our teeth, but in this case it will be a material made out of these proteins. The first challenge is to be able to do it in an easy way that the dentist can do it in a practical fast way directly in the dentist office. The other challenge is to have it stable so that as soon as you deposit it and you implant it, then you can start talking, you can start drinking you can start eating and everything, sort of that active environment of the mouth can take place. But yes so it already shows promising properties. 

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