Rena D’Souza, an associate professor of orthodontics at the University of Texas in Houston, has also scouted out tooth-growing triggers. She and her students traced a tooth disorder found in one family and discovered it was related to a mutation on a master gene known as PAX9. That finding, she says, might lead them to new ways of manipulating and promoting tooth development.
“It was exciting to actually find the gene in humans,” she says. “Usually to find a gene we have to start with the mouse.”
MacDougall, meanwhile, is cultivating a crop of nearly 30 sets of mouse teeth in her lab. She explains it’s easier to grow entire mice teeth in culture since she can extract the entire tooth bud from laboratory mice. By placing these buds in culture, MacDougall is able to examine the roles of various proteins in the tooth-growing process.
Many Genes to Make a Tooth
So far at least 25 different genes have been found that prompt teeth to grow in humans. MacDougall says they have tested for thousands of genes, but estimates there could be as many as 20,000 that play a role in making teeth.
“Thankfully,” she says, “we’re just looking for the major players.”
In the future, those “major player” genes could then be used to create tooth bud-like tissues that would then be placed in empty tooth sockets in the mouth to grow new teeth. MacDougall hopes to keep costs of the practice down so patients might be able to save millions of dollars in dental work.
She’s also considered one relatively small worry.
“The question is would adults be able to handle the pain of a budding tooth as well as children do?” she says. “I guess we’ll find out.”