Your dentist will undoubtedly tell you that prevention is better than a cure when it comes to the degradation and possible loss of your natural teeth. While you might practise impeccable dental hygiene, a tooth can still be lost or damaged in an accident, so that cure might still be necessary despite your best efforts. While a missing tooth can be "cured" by a contemporary dental implant, it's interesting to note that early dentists have been attempting to do the same thing for centuries now. And it might also be possible that contemporary dental implants might become outdated. So what about the history, the present, and the future of replacing missing teeth?
Replacing missing or damaged teeth is not a new concept. The best-preserved example was discovered at Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead) in Honduras. During excavation work in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Dorothy Popenoe and her husband Wilson discovered bone fragments dating back to between the 7th and 8th centuries. Amongst these discoveries was a jaw bone where three specially cut pieces of shell were used to replace missing incisor teeth. The fact that the shells were still lodged in the bone showed that the prosthetic teeth (the shells) could be considered to be a very early type of dental implant. Of course, dental implants have (mercifully) come a long way since then.
A missing or significantly damaged tooth can be replaced with a dental implant. The implant is not the prosthetic tooth itself, but is in fact the metal bolt (generally made of titanium due to its hypoallergenic qualities) that is implanted into your jaw. A process known as osseointegration (wherein the organic tissues in your jaw fuse to the implant) needs to occur before further work can commence, which involves the fitting of an abutment to the top of the implant, which is then capped with the prosthetic tooth. Dental implants are designed with longevity in mind, but with the creation of the prosthetic tooth, along with the implant procedure and the time needed for osseointegration, a dental implant can require a commitment in both time and cost. However, the permanence of the end result can make it an extremely worthwhile investment. But will the dental implant ever be superseded by a more advanced method?
Partial teeth, which can be considered to be individual teeth that have degraded due to periodontal disease or an accident resulting in significant cavities or chips (missing sections) could potentially be regrown. Preliminary research has led to the discovery that a medication developed for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease can stimulate dentin production that would not have otherwise occurred. The result is somewhat comparable to the open-rooted (continually growing) teeth that can be found in rodents and rabbits. Ongoing dentin production means that the teeth grow for the duration of the animal's lifetime (which is why they need to keep them at a manageable length by gnawing on suitable materials). An application of the Alzheimer's drug in question (known as Tideglusib) partially replicates this process, although it doesn't result in unchecked growth as human teeth are not open-rooted. The tooth would simply regrow to its former size and shape. Practical implementation of this research might be some time away, and yet this triggered regeneration could have tremendous benefits.
It would be fascinating if humans were one day able to regrow their own teeth. Still, dental implants are an extremely efficient solution until then. And at least you don't have to have pieces of shell jammed into your jaw!