When a root canal is performed, the infected dental pulp inside a tooth is replaced with tiny rubber rods – unfortunately this leaves the tooth dead, and thus likely to become infected again. A new procedure, however, may be able to keep such teeth alive and strong.

Led by Drs. Vivek Kumar and Peter Nguyen, a team from the New Jersey Institute of Technology started with an existing peptide hydrogel that had previously been shown to stimulate angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels) when injected under the skin of mice and rats. The solution actually starts out as a liquid, but self-assembles into a gel once injected.

They proceeded to add a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor, which stimulates dentinogenesis (the proliferation of dental pulp stem cells). When the mixture was introduced to cultured dental pulp stem cells, those cells not only proliferated, but they also began depositing calcium phosphate crystals, which make up tooth enamel.

Although this first version of the peptide hydrogel degraded soon after being injected under rats' skin, a "much more stable version" has since been created. The scientists are now experimenting with injecting it into the teeth of dogs that have received root canals. If those experiments are successful, human trials could follow.

Down the road, Kumar and Nguyen plan to add an antibacterial agent to the gel. This would hopefully make root canals much less of an ordeal – only relatively small amounts of the hydrogel would need to be injected into a patient's tooth, killing the infection and allowing most of the existing pulp to remain intact.

The research, which is further explained in the following video, was recently presented at the 256th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society.