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Aspirin could be the key to reversing tooth decay, say Belfast scientists

Aspirin could be used to regenerate teeth and reduce the need for expensive fillings, medical scientists in Belfast say.

Research into the anti-inflammatory painkiller found that it stimulates stem cells in teeth, encouraging regeneration.

Scientists at Queen’s University in Belfast say that the cost-effective drug – which costs around one penny a tablet – would save the NHS millions if it could be used to help teeth self-repair.

The only current remedy for decayed teeth – where a tooth nerve becomes inflamed when enamel is weakened by bacteria-filled plaque – is a filling.

While teeth can produce dentine, which lies just below the enamel, they can’t regenerate enough to repair larger cavities.

A 2016 report by The British Dental Association found that around 44 per cent of 15-year-olds in England have tooth decay, with 63 per cent in Wales and 72 per cent in Northern Ireland.

During the research, aspirin, known as acetylsalicylic acid and used to ease common complaints such as headaches, was found to stimulate dental stem cells and induce the production of dentine.

Prof Ikhlas El Karim, a senior lecturer in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast said more work needed to be done but the latest research could eventually sound the death knell for fillings.

She said: “Ideally, what we’re really reporting here is that we’re hoping to be able to develop a therapy [so] that the teeth could repair themselves.

“This is going to be gradual, it’s not going to be the end of the filling straight away.”

Dr El Karim said scientists now had to work out how aspirin could be applied to teeth to ensure it’s effective in sparking the regeneration of dentine.

She said: “You need to put it [on the tooth] in a way that it can be easily released over a long period of time, if you put an aspirin now on a cavity, it’s going to be washed away.

“We are not encouraging that, there is a scientific way to go about this, so that we produce a final product that can be used by a dentist, not by a patient.”

The fact that aspirin is already licensed could reduce the development of the potential treatment, with clinical trials in the ‘near future’.

Dr El Karim said: “We are not really talking about 10 or 20 years time, it will probably be in the near future that it could be tried in a clinical trial with patients.

“There is huge potential to change our approach to one of the biggest dental challenges we face.

“This novel approach could not only increase the long-term survival of teeth, but could also result in huge savings for the NHS and other healthcare systems worldwide.”

School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, Queen's University Belfast