Dental phobia, or a fear of visiting the dentist, affects nearly one-quarter of adults, according to one 2009 study. Given the invasive and often-damaging nature of dental procedures, it is no wonder that this fear is prevalent. Indeed, many required interventions involve drilling or pulling teeth—hardly a desirable experience.

Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering aim to transform this practice by growing teeth rather than mechanically manipulating them. David Mooney, a professor of bioengineering at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and his team have successfully encouraged tissue regeneration in teeth with the use of light-activated stem cells. Mooney trained a low-power laser light on human dental stem cells that had been implanted in rat teeth, causing them to form new dentin within about 12 weeks.

"Our treatment modality does not introduce anything new to the body, and lasers are routinely used in medicine and dentistry, so the barriers to clinical translation are low," said Mooney in a statement. "It would be a substantial advance in the field if we can regenerate teeth rather than replace them.”

The process is just a laboratory study right now and it has yet to be performed on human teeth. Moreover, it is still somewhat intrusive, since it requires the implantation of dental stem cells. Nevertheless, the achievement brings positive news to anxious dental patients, who may one day experience less-painful procedures that are based on self-restoration rather than the conventional cut-and-fill methods. The development also suggests interesting possibilities for future bone-like architectural materials, which could self-regenerate when damaged.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.