Imagine using stem cells to regenerate a tooth root with nerve endings and a blood supply instead of installing an implant. It may happen someday thanks to a 5-year, $2.1 million grant the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) has given the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California.
“This is really one of the hottest areas in stem cell research right now,” said Yang Chai, PhD, associate dean of research, director of the Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology, and George and Mary Lou Boone chair in craniofacial molecular biology. “People are really interested in how stem cells make the decision to give rise to certain cell types.”
Chai and his colleagues have discovered a neurovascular bundle at the base of the mouse incisor that provides a home for mesenchymal stem cells. Mouse incisors never stop growing, and the mesenchymal stem cells are responsible for incisor growth and repair. The researchers will use the grant to take this investigation further.
“For us to regenerate any tissue or organ, we need to know what controls that process,” said Chai. “So by learning how nature has set up this process, we can recreate an environment that is similar and be able to build an organ.”
By understanding what causes a stem cell to transform into a tooth cell, bone marrow cell, or cartilage cell, scientists may be able to control the process of tissue regeneration. For example, surgeons may be able to use new tissue to correct birth defects like cleft lip and cleft palate or skull malformations, Chai said.
“We’re now combining developmental biology with stem cells, and I think that is really exciting,” Chai said. “Not only could we understand what causes birth defects, but we could also help surgeons to recreate tissue that they can use to restore the defect.”