Spiky sea creatures can give you perfect teeth

Scientists have discovered an unlikely bone graft material: the spines of sea urchins. They mimic human bone structure and help the regrowth of bone mass needed for dental implants and other therapies.

In 10 seconds? Bone grafts — a medical procedure to help damaged bones regrow — are performed on millions of people. Current methods can hurt a lot when bone from other parts of the body are cut out to create ‘scaffolds’ to help fix the damaged parts. New materials mean that these operations can be avoided. (Read more about the science here)

What? Sea urchins for dentistry? Let’s take a step back. Say, after an unfortunate rugby tackle, you need tooth implants, but the dentist can’t do them if your jawbones are too thin. One way to go is dentures, but food just doesn’t taste that good because of the glue. You can opt for grafts, which is a surgical procedure to make implants possible and let you smile with confidence! (Read about how bone grafts are used to fix the upper jawbone)

Okay, but why those spiky sea things? Grafts are materials that create ‘scaffolds’ that encourage bone tissue to regrow within them, and disappear afterwards. The material can come from the patient’s body, from a human donor, or it can be synthetic. Sea urchins’ spines can eliminate the need for human bones as they have similar strength and porousness. In their experiments, the material fused well with bones in living rabbits and in a few months’ time degraded while being replaced by the animals’ own tissue. (Learn more here)

So why haven’t we heard about sea urchins’ spines before? Unfortunately, the mechanical strength of sea urchin spines varies from species to species, as well as from specimen to specimen, so the technique has yet to be rolled out more broadly. But, this may not be so important for parts of the body that are subjected to low stress. Currently processed cow bones (bovine bones) are widely used for oral surgeries helping create jawbones that can hold dental implants for at least five years. (Find out how bovine bone grafts work)

I’m not so sold on animal material. Is there anything else? Yes, and it can come straight from a 3D printer. Researchers have developed artificial materials that have “nature-inspired” geometries and structures. The fact that they can be 3D-printed to precise specifications means that they can fit snugly in the damaged area. So, there are reasons to smile! (Find out more here)

Did you know? Bone grafting goes back almost 350 years
The first documented bone graft was performed in 1668 by Dr Jacob van Meekeren, a Dutch doctor. The patient was a soldier with a damaged skull. The hole was patched up with dog bone that completely fused with his skull. This was bad luck - the soldier was reportedly excommunicated for ‘partially being a dog’.

1821 saw the first ‘autograft’ operation, when bone from one part of the patient’s body was used to heal another.

Research into bone repair advanced after the two World Wars and in 1965, an American surgeon, Dr Marshall Urist, developed demineralised bone matrix (DBM). DBM is more effective at encouraging bone regrowth than untreated bone, but it took 26 years before it was first commercialised in 1991.

This research was curated by Ghada Adayil,
Sparrho Hero, Masters candidate, periodontist and implantologist at Cairo University

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