A root canal can be a literal lifesaver for an infected tooth, but the process does involve cutting off the blood supply, robbing that particular tusk of its natural defenses. Scientists have now come up with a way to fabricate new blood vessels in teeth, which may offer a way for them to regain important functionality.

A root canal is typically called for when tissue inside the tooth, called the pulp, becomes inflamed or infected and causes problems such as decay, cracks or chips. It involves removing this infected tissue and replacing it with a synthetic material encased by a protective crown.

"This process eliminates the tooth's blood and nerve supply, rendering it lifeless and void of any biological response or defense mechanism," says Luiz Bertassoni, assistant professor of restorative dentistry at the Oregon Health and Science University. "Without this functionality, adult teeth may be lost much sooner, which can result in much greater concerns, such as the need for dentures or dental implants."

In coming up with a solution, Bertassoni and his team built on previous research, where they developed a way to bio-print artificial vascular networks that imitate the body's circulatory system. This involves using a bio-printer to create tiny fibers that serve as a mold, which for the purposes of this research were made from sugar molecules.

This mould was then laid across the root canal of an extracted human tooth and injected with a gel-like material filled with dental pulp cells. After that, the fiber was removed to leave a small channel along the root canal, into which endothelial cells taken from the interior lining of the blood vessels were inserted. After seven days, the researchers report that dentin-producing cells, which is one of the four tissues making up human teeth, started forming near the tooth walls, and that artificial blood vessels began forming inside the tooth.

"This result proves that fabrication of artificial blood vessels can be a highly effective strategy for fully regenerating the function of teeth," says Bertassoni. "We believe that this finding may change the way that root canal treatments are done in the future."

The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.