Imagine someday being able to eliminate missing teeth by restoring the roots of decayed teeth. If researchers at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California have their way, that could be possible. That’s because researchers have found a formula that could regenerate those roots, using a process called epigenetic regulation.

Epigenetics is defined as the study of alterations to organisms via modification of gene expression, and epigenetics may be the key to controlling the pattern and formation of tooth rot.

Researchers discovered that tooth rot patterns are controlled by proteins called Arid1a and Ezh2. When these two proteins are in balance, and in certain configurations of tooth roots are in just the right place with the jawbone, a tooth rot pattern can be established.

Dr. Allison Lesko is a Fort Collins-based dentist. She says this type of breakthrough could make a huge difference in how we treat rotten teeth.

“Right now, if a tooth is badly decayed, there’s a chance it may need to be pulled,” Lesko says. “With this discovery, they may someday be able to restore tooth roots, which means even if a tooth is pulled we may not need to rely on dentures or dental implants to replace it.”

That’s because with regenerated roots, the researchers at USC believe they can create enough of a replacement tooth to at least cover it with a crown.

“A crown over an existing tooth is a much better option than a dental implant,” says Lesko. “While dental implants are really the Cadillac of dental prosthetics, there is always a chance of something called implant failure.”

Implant failure occurs when the screw used to anchor a dental implant to the jaw fails to implant itself into the jawbone. This can happen due to bone loss or deterioration, which can occur when too much time passes between the loss of the tooth and the attempted implantation.

“With regenerated tooth roots and a bit of naturally regrown tooth, the risk of implant failure would be obsolete,” Lesko says.

Another benefit to the study that was noted by its authors? The discovery could someday treat cancer, too.

According to the researchers at USC, some cancers can be affected by epigenetic regulators; when these regulators are out of balance, cancer can develop. The key to treating these cancers is to find a way to balance the epigenetics and stop the cancer in its tracks.

“I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about epigenetics in the near future,” says Lesko. “There are some exciting breakthroughs already, and they’re still just scratching the surface.”