Researchers believe their breakthrough could spare dental patients years of agonising toothache and save the NHS thousands of pounds in treatment costs.
The team from Queen’s University, Belfast, have discovered that aspirin could reverse the effects of decay by stimulating stem growth in teeth.
They say that by replacing the synthetic material used for fillings with the everyday painkiller, they would encourage the tooth to “self-repair”.
Tooth decay is the world’s most common dental disease and the health service fits about seven million fillings each year in England alone.
Dr Ikhlas El Karim, the project leader, will explain her findings to the British Society for Oral and Dental Research annual conference in Plymouth today.
She said: “There is huge potential to change our approach to one of the biggest dental challenges we face.
“Our initial research findings in the laboratory suggest that the use of aspirin, a drug already licensed for human use, could offer an immediate innovative solution enabling our teeth to repair themselves.”
Dr El Karim, senior lecturer at the university’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, added: “Our next step will be to develop an appropriate delivery system to test the drug efficacy in a clinical trial.
“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.”
The most common type of filling – an amalgam – is made from a mixture of mercury, silver, tin, copper and zinc, and costs patients at least £56.30 on the NHS.
But the Belfast team say the metallic filling does not resemble the tooth’s natural structure and will need to be replaced many times during the patient’s life time.
By analysing tooth genetics, they concluded that aspirin has properties which stimulates stem cell growth and regenerates the damaged tooth structure.
Treating the stem cells with a low dose of the painkiller “significantly increased” the formation of dentine – the hard bony material ofwhich teeth are made.
Dr El Karim said: “Aspirin can enhance the function of stem cells found in the teeth, thus helping self-repair by regenerating lost tooth structure.
“This novel discovery, coupled with the known anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effects of aspirin could provide a unique solution for controlling nerve inflammation and pain awhile promoting natural tooth repair.”