Grow Your Own M-M-M-Molars

Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia! Everybody loves a Chia Pet. For just $14.99 and a couple of weeks of diligent watering the whole family is rewarded with minutes of fun. Pretty soon, though, the dream dies and along with it goes the Chia Pet. Whether you were nurturing a Chia Pig, a Chia Kitten or the now much sought after Mr T Chia Head from the 1980s, the results are much the same after a month or two: something that looks like moldy cake and gives kids the willies.

But scientists finally have come up with something to rival Chia Pets.

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas have successfully grown mouse teeth in a laboratory dish. And pretty soon they plan on growing human teeth too. In studying the process, scientists identified at least 25 mouse genes involved in tooth production and, while they suspect many more are involved in human tooth development, they believe similar techniques can be used to grow human teeth. The team also has successfully engineered mouse and human cells that produce certain components of the teeth, such as dentin and enamel. In doing so, they have a better understanding of the processes necessary for tooth formation and development.

The potential effects of such technology are many and promise to revolutionize future dental care. Within ten years, scientists hope they will be able to grow made-to-order incisors, canines, molars or premolars in a dish and supply them to a clinician for implantation, replacing lost or diseased teeth.

Think about that. It was only about 200 hundred years ago that George Washington commissioned his favorite dentist to carve him a lower denture from hippopotamus bone. Hippopotamus bone! And it was inlaid with eight human teeth. Eight human teeth!

Boy, he must have had a winning smile.

Ultimately, scientists hope to activate the genes responsible for tooth development within the gum tissue itself, causing new teeth to grow only where they are needed. They won’t even have to provide a clinician with new teeth for implantation, they’ll just need to inject the site at which new teeth are needed. But the team believes this will take longer, requiring years of research to better understand to mechanisms of tooth formation. According to press reports, the researchers are studying members of a number of families that suffer from a congenital disorder, causing them to grow too many teeth. Scientists hope the genes involved in tooth development will be easier to identify in members of these families.

In just a few decades, uncomfortable dentures and painful dental therapies will be replaced by simple and painless genetic treatment to initiate new tooth growth. Tooth loss due to traumatic injury also will be more successfully treated than by using current methodologies. In many Third-World countries, even today, dietary vitamin deficiences and inadequate dental care are responsible for oral disease and tooth loss in a majority of adolescents, a statistic that will be reversed using the new technology.

A trip to the dentist probably won’t be the terrifying prospect it is now, either. Admit it, none of us enjoy going to the dentist, it holds all the promise of visiting a Cold War gulag. But no longer will we have to sit in drab waiting rooms, leafing through six-year-old copies of Cosmopolitan, ignoring the whine of the drill and the sunlight glinting off the bars on the window. No. We’ll just get new teeth. And damn the cost. Its worth it. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, there are no bars on the window. But that screen looks pretty sturdy.

And, of course, there are many and varied other uses for a new technology like this. For instance, why would anyone want to grow a Chia Pet when they can grow a dishful of teeth? Even if scientists are not able to grow human teeth in the laboratory, kids everywhere can still grow a dishful of mouse teeth. This is America! Land of opportunity and, um, teeth. All across the country, in darkened bedrooms, ‘N Sync and Britney Spears posters will look down on dishes full of gleaming new teeth, arranged like pearls in a warm broth of nutrients.

What a thought!

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