Synthetic enamel could see tooth pain bite the dust

Scientists at Queen Mary University of London have developed a new method of growing minerals that mimics the structure of bone and enamel.


h aligned fluorapatite nanocrystals that are i, j grouped into prism-like microstructures that further grow into k macroscopic circular structures (Credit: QMUL)

Enamel’s intricate structure protects teeth from decay, even when faced with acidic foods and extreme temperatures. It is the hardest substance in the body, but unlike other tissues, it doesn’t regenerate. A synthetic replacement has long been a goal of dentistry and could potentially help millions of people around the world who suffer from tooth pain.

The Queen Mary team employed “a protein-mediated mineralisation process”, where a specific protein triggers and guides the growth of apatite nanocrystals at multiple scales. The mineralisation results in the nanocrystals organising into microscopic prisms that grow in clusters, similar to how natural dental enamel develops. Indentation testing showed the synthetic hierarchical structures, though not quite matching the hardness of human enamel, outperformed both bone and dentine.

(Credit: QMUL)

“This is exciting because the simplicity and versatility of the mineralisation platform opens up opportunities to treat and regenerate dental tissues,” said Queen Mary’s Dr Sherif Elsharkawy, a dentist and first author of the study, which appears in Nature Communications.

“For example, we could develop acid resistant bandages that can infiltrate, mineralise, and shield exposed dentinal tubules of human teeth for the treatment of dentin hypersensitivity.”

According to the researchers, the tunability of the mineralisation process means it will be possible to create materials that more closely mimic different hard tissues beyond enamel such as bone and dentine.

“A major goal in materials science is to learn from nature to develop useful materials based on the precise control of molecular building-blocks,” said lead author Professor Alvaro Mata, from Queen Mary’s School of Engineering and Materials Science.

“The key discovery has been the possibility to exploit disordered proteins to control and guide the process of mineralisation at multiple scales. Through this, we have developed a technique to easily grow synthetic materials that emulate such hierarchically organised architecture over large areas and with the capacity to tune their properties.”