A Moment of Science

Gene Enamel Fix

Having trouble with cavities or tooth decay? Read about the "Gene Enamel Fix" on this Moment of Science.

Close up of teeth cleaning

Photo: ktpupp (flickr)

Standard dental checkup and cleaning

One of our readers wrote in with this question: I’ve had a problem with cavities all my life, so I’m wondering if there are any new dental techniques or discoveries that can help me prevent tooth decay?

Here’s the answer:

The best way to prevent cavities is regular flossing and brushing, and regular trips to the dentist. However, dental researchers do have investigations in the works that could usher in a new era of treating and preventing cavities. For example, scientists at Oregon State have identified the gene that controls how our bodies grow tooth enamel–the super hard coating that gives our teeth their strength and chewing power. It’s a cool discovery because it could lead to techniques that allow dentists to repair damaged enamel and maybe even re-grow damaged teeth.

But let’s give a little context. The researchers studied the gene, called C-tip 2, by turning it off in embryonic mice. They found that the developing mouse embryos’ teeth lacked enamel. So the gene is necessary for producing enamel. The important thing is that knowing the genetic basis of tooth enamel could lead to new dental treatments. For example, most cavities are due to holes in enamel that allow decay to happen.

Scientists could one day be able to use teeth stem cells to grow new enamel. This could be especially useful for people whose enamel has been worn away due to diet or other factors. Stem cell enamel replacement is a long way off, but discovering an enamel gene is a pretty good first step in that direction.

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