Conventional dental implants are typically screwed into the patient’s jaw bone, require visits to several types of clinicians, take two to six months to heal, and are still subject to failure. Not exactly an ideal solution to missing teeth. A professor of dental medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, however, has devised a technique wherein implants could be grown in the empty tooth socket, right inside the patient’s mouth.

Dr. Jeremy Mao started with a tooth-shaped scaffold made of microchannelled natural materials, infused with a growth factor. In an animal-model study, he placed that structure in a recipient’s empty tooth socket, then caused their stem cells to home (migrate) onto the scaffold. It resulted not only in the growth of a new tooth-like structure, but also in the regeneration of periodontal ligaments and the formation of new alveolar bone.

Dr. Mao believes that a complete tooth could be grown in as little as nine weeks.

Previously, such “tooth-growing” would have required the use of harvested stem cells, and would have to be done in an external environment such as a petri dish. By growing within the tooth socket, the implant integrates with the surrounding tissue in a way that would otherwise be impossible. Because it’s made from the recipient’s own cells, it will continuously regenerate and could even last their lifetime.

The Columbia University research could mean all the difference for certain patients. “A key consideration in tooth regeneration is finding a cost-effective approach that can translate into therapies for patients who cannot afford or who aren’t good candidates for dental implants,” Dr. Mao said. “Cell-homing-based tooth regeneration may provide a tangible pathway toward clinical translation.”