A dental school professor from UT Health San Antonio is part of an international team of researchers that found a mechanism that could offer a new way to repair teeth by activating stem cells to aid tissue regeneration.

The study, published Aug. 9 in the scientific journal Nature Communications, is the first to show that a gene called Delta-like 1 homolog (Dlk1) is vital to regenerating the skeletal tissue of muscles and bones.

Dr. Shuo Chen, professor of developmental dentistry at UT Health San Antonio, said he and others at the dental school have been looking at how to use specialized cells to produce dentin, the hard tissue that covers the main body of a tooth, and how to regenerate tissue to repair teeth. Basic genetic materials needed to complete the study were grown at UT Health San Antonio and provided to researchers at the University of Plymouth’s Peninsula Dental School, where the study was based.

“I have been growing mice models for this type of research for several years in order to look at how stem cells contribute to bone structure and formation,” Chen said. “A lot of groups in and outside of the U.S. have been working to [figure out] how to use a stem cell to repair dental [problems], and as more research comes out” scientists are getting closer to testing the findings on humans.

Using mouse cell lines, Chen grows laboratory mice of all sizes with both normal or abnormal teeth in his lab at UT Health San Antonio for the purpose of testing whether stem cells can be used to repair tooth damage. Because the mice have to be of similar growth, it can take years to develop mouse models that can be used for comparison against one another, Chen said.

University of Plymouth researchers discovered a new population of mesenchymal stem cells – cells that comprise skeletal tissue – and found that Dlk1 enhances stem cell activation, can help form tooth dentin, and can help heal tooth wounds and decay.

When mesenchymal stem cells are activated by the Dlk1 gene, they send signals to the mother cells of the tissue, helping to manage the number of cells produced, Chen said. “This suggests the method could help restore damaged teeth and may lead to new treatment,” he said, noting that patients one day may be able to repair tooth damage with stem cells from their own wisdom teeth. 

The use of stem cells to restore lost, damaged, or aging cells and tissue in the human body has been touted as the future of regenerative medicine for the last several decades because the cells have the ability to develop into almost any type of cell in the body, from brain cells to muscle cells.

“Stem cells are very smart.  They are able to sense their environment, determine what the body needs, and then release the exact group of factors to repair the damaged tissue.  In other words, stem cells are often able to simultaneously and precisely provide therapies for treating multiple targets, resulting in a systemic treatment for diseases with fewer side-effects”.” said Dr. Xiao-Dong Chen, a professor in the Department of Comprehensive Dentistry at UT Health San Antonio who is conducting preclinical research on how stem cells can be used to repair salivary glands and treat chronic health conditions such as aging and diabetes.

Xiao-Dong said stem cells can be used to reduce wrinkles and remove scars from a person’s face, or help repair cells in people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. “Stem cells have a huge potential, but we have to move very carefully and make sure that all of their effects have are extensively studied and well known.”

Chen said that UT Health San Antonio has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to begin a clinical trial looking at how specific genes stimulate stem cells in human teeth, and has ongoing studies using mouse models to repair teeth that are damaged or decaying as well as repair other tissue.  

“There are so many advantages to stem cells, and in the future, I think you will see it will change the way people age and how we treat disease,” Chen said. “All of this research will significantly impact [people’s] quality of life in the near future.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.