An alligator can regenerate a lost tooth up to 50 times. In what must come as good news for hockey players, researchers at the University of Southern California are studying alligators' teeth to see if doctors could one day stimulate adult humans to replace a tooth if they lose one automatically.
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to lead author Cheng-Ming Chuong, alligator teeth are very similar to humans, and his team may have discovered why they have regenerative properties.
Chuong says alligators' teeth grow in sets of three: They have an adult tooth in their mouth, a replacement or "baby" tooth waiting in case of a lost tooth, and then a stem cell that can become a replacement tooth if necessary.
"When the mature tooth falls out, the second one becomes a mature one, and the stem cell becomes a baby one. Interestingly, they can do this process repeatedly," he says. "In humans, we have a similar structure when we're born, but we don't have any stem cells there under normal conditions."
Though the understanding necessary to make regenerative medicine a possibility in humans is still far off, Chuong says that one day scientists will be able to inject hormones or molecules that will cause humans to grow new teeth.
"We have to understand the molecular pathway involved," he says. "We will need the ability to position and control the process strategically," Chuong says that the ability to regenerate cells isn't completely without precedent in humans.