MONDAY, Aug. 3, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers in Japan report that they've grown new teeth in mice with the help of bioengineered tissue, an early sign of progress in the effort to grow new organs in humans.
The research provides "convincing" proof that bioengineered teeth can be fully functional, said Dr. Fei Liu, a researcher at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the Texas A&M Health Science Center, who's familiar with the findings of the study.
Liu cautioned that "the general public should be aware that this kind of research is still far from application" in humans. But in the future, he predicted, people will prefer "biological" teeth like those created by the Japanese researchers to porcelain replacement teeth because they will look better and be more functional.
The researchers behind the study wanted to find out what would happen if they took bioengineered tooth "germs" -- tissue that holds the instructions to building a tooth -- and transplanted it into the jawbones of mice.
What happened was that teeth developed from the bioengineered tissue. And the mice had no trouble eating with the new teeth, said Takashi Tsuji, a researcher at the Tokyo University of Science and a co-author of the study. The teeth also developed nerve fibers that could feel pain.
A report on the study appears online in the Aug. 3-7 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Why bother developing technology to regenerate teeth in the first place? Because it could help humans whose teeth are malformed, said Dr. Louis J. Elsas, interim chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
"Tooth regeneration could be useful particularly in infant malformations such as cleft lip and palate, and other malformations involving teeth and bone of the oral cavity," Elsas said.
Researchers have also discussed the possibility of using generated teeth as replacements for inlays and synthetic implants.
But Tsuji acknowledged that there's a potential hitch on the road to generation of teeth in humans: Scientists have not found the cells in humans that are needed to start the tooth-generation process. This means they're further along with mice.
Even so, it might eventually be possible to use a person's own cells instead of using cells from embryos, Tsuji said.
What this might cost is unknown.
As for the future, "many researchers hope our study will be adaptable to a wide variety of organs," Tsuji said.
The challenge for scientists will be to figure out how to generate organs that make enough connections to the body to function properly.
The Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative has more on tissue regeneration.