All I Want for Christmas Is a Dishful of Teeth

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 alon

Sep 21, 2000 at 2:06 pm

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 are 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. While scientists suspect human tooth development involves many more genes, they believe similar techniques can be used to grow them.

The team has also 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 10 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 years ago that George Washington commissioned his favorite dentist to carve 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.

Scientists hope ultimately to activate the genes responsible for tooth development within the gum tissue, 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 the 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 responsible for tooth development will be easier to identify in members of these families. With information from these studies, researchers will be better able to initiate new tooth growth in unfortunate patients who only grow their full quota.

In just a few decades, simple and painless genetic treatment to initiate new tooth growth will replace uncomfortable dentures and painful dental therapies. Treatment of tooth loss due to traumatic injury will also be more successful than current methodologies. In many Third World countries, dietary deficiencies and inadequate dental care are responsible for oral disease and tooth loss in a majority of adolescents, a statistic the new technology could reverse.

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 6-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. It's worth it.

Of course, there are many and varied other uses for a new technology such as 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 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!