The dentist’s drill is a sound that sends shudders down the spines of many people, so it sure would be nice if teeth could just repair themselves. With thanks to a recent study, that may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

The new research coming from the University of Plymouth believes the key to the future of tooth repair may come from stem cells in mice. Unlike humans, these rodents have incisors (front teeth) that continuously grow over their lifetimes. This is because, compared to humans, the stem cells in their teeth are able to regrow dentin – the tough tissue that covers the main body of a tooth.

Focusing on how these teeth repair themselves, the research team discovered a new population of mesenchymal stem cells – the stem cells that make up skeletal tissue such as muscle and bone. The researchers showed that these cells are responsible for creating new dentin, controlling the number of new cells produced through a molecular gene called Dlk1. In a further step, the team found that the Dlk1 gene not only plays an important part in the ongoing process of growing tooth tissue but also helps patch up injuries as well.

While human teeth are very different, these recent discoveries pave the way for further research in determining whether the same gene and stem cells can be recruited to help us patch up cavities and, maybe one day, make visits to the dentist obsolete.