The combination of a poor diet and poor oral hygiene inevitably causes tooth decay. Cavities can lead to tooth sensitivity and some pain near the root of the tooth; usually, a filling will help prevent further decay. Now, researchers at Queen's University Belfast have found the effects of tooth decay can be reversed by using aspirin to fill cavities.

Aspirin offers an alternative to restoring rotting teeth by enhancing the function of stem cells in the teeth to jump start the regeneration of the damaged tooth structure. The use of low-dose aspirin to treat stem cells was found to significantly increase mineralization and the expression of genes responsible for forming dentine — a hard tooth structure that is damaged by decay. In other words, aspirin stimulates stem cells in the teeth so it can self-repair without the need for fillings.

"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," said Dr. El Karim, the principal investigator of the study, in a statement.

Tooth decay happens when acid — produced by bacteria and found within the plaque — from the mouth dissolves the enamel and dentine of the teeth, which leads to holes or the formation of cavities. Eating sugar can interact with the bacteria within the plaque to produce this acid. The cavity will begin to eat away the material beneath the enamel, known as the dentine, which is why fillings are needed to save the tooth and minimize impact.

Currently, tooth decay treatment relies on fillings, which is when a decayed portion of the tooth is drilled away and replaced with a filling that is made of either composite resins, porcelain, silver, gold, or amalgam. More extensive cavities involve advanced techniques, such as crowns and root canals. These treatments may need to be done many times during the lifetime of the tooth.

Aspirin use could help limit the amount of fillings needed in the future.

At the British Society for Oral and Dental Research Annual Conference in Plymouth, UK, Karim and his colleagues explained they collected large amounts of previous research data to select aspirin as a compound that had the gene signature needed to produce new dentine, the statement noted. This prompted the researchers to treat stem cells with aspirin in a Petri dish; they found genetic and also material evidence the drug can indeed produce dentine.

"Our next step will be to develop an appropriate delivery system to test the drug efficacy in a clinical trial," said Karim.

Researchers need to figure out how aspirin will be applied to the teeth to begin the regeneration process of the dentine. Simply adding the aspirin to the infected tooth will not work. It needs to be placed on the tooth in a certain way so the drug can be released over a period of time.

The use of aspirin as a tooth decay "cure" could help boost the survival of teeth. Over 90 percent of adults ages 20 to 64 have had cavities in their permanent teeth and 26 percent of adults in this group have untreated decay, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Developing an alternative to tooth decay treatment could help limit the amount of fillings needed and reduce the cost of dental spending for adults.

Aspirin, one of the most widely used drugs, could have the potential to change one of the most common dental problems people face worldwide.