Enamel is the front line of defense against caries and other issues. To shore up its resistance, Anamaria Balic, MD, PhD, has received high-risk funding of almost 120,000 Euros from the Academy of Finland to develop the chemical recipe for growing tooth enamel and even whole teeth with stem cells in vitro and in vivo.
Her research begins with mice, whose incisors grow in length throughout the animal’s lifetime. New enamel is created as mice wear down their teeth by gnawing. These incisors do not form roots, though. Meanwhile, humans and mice have similar molars. Once they begin to form a root, the stem cells that produce enamel disappear.
“The gradual process of creating tooth enamel is similar in the incisors and molars of mice, and the molars of mice develop very similarly to human molars,” said Balic, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki Institute of Biotechnology. “Once we master the process in mice, it will be very easy to apply it to humans.”
Balic isolates stem cells in mice fetuses for culturing in growth media and adds chemical stimuli such as signaling molecules, growth factors, or the body’s other natural proteins. Through trial and error, she hopes to discover which stimuli make stem cells develop into enamel-producing ameloblasts and which stimuli regulate enamel formation.
“Humans lose stem cells in early childhood, so ethical reasons prevent studies in humans,” Balic explains. “In addition, it is difficult to keep dental stem cells alive in a test tube.”
Working in the university’s Embryonic Organ Development research group, Balic hopes to move from mouse cells to human cells as early as next year. She estimates that it may take a decade before the technique could be used to produce dental spare parts for humans from stem cells.