Researchers at King's College London are developing a procedure using low frequency electrical currents to help teeth "self heal" cavities without drilling.
The technology, called "electrically accelerated and enhanced remineralisation", could put an end to fillings for early-stage cavities (known as lesions) and moderate tooth decay. Eventually it could lead to new treatments for more advanced decay.
There's even better news. This technology could make it to dentists' offices within three years.
A cavity is the result of a tooth losing minerals in the enamel, and starting to decay. Teeth can repair themselves by replacing those minerals with ones found in saliva or fluoride through a natural "remineralisation" process.
Researchers have been trying to figure out how to enhance that process by making it faster and allowing it to work more deeply in the tooth.
King's College London Professor Nigel Pitts, a dentist, said the process had been known about for some time.
"People were talking about remineralisation in the 1980s, but it's been hard to achieve a viable way that will remineralise established, large lesions in depth," he said.
Pitts said his team's "Eureka" moment came when they began focusing on preparing the tooth by removing barriers to the remineralisation process, including saliva and tissue. Step two involves using electrical currents to help drive minerals into the tooth.
In theory, a dentist would be able to place what Pitts calls a "healing hand piece" on the surface of the tooth for the duration of the relatively quick procedure. It emits an imperceptible electric current that drives minerals back into the tooth.
The process would be painless and would cost about as much as, or less than, a traditional filling, and would take about as much time, Pitts said.
"Using the electrical method, we can achieve remineralisation that would have taken weeks and we can do it an order of magnitude faster and better," he said.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 60-90 per cent of children and nearly 100 per cent of adults worldwide have dental cavities.
Now it appears that technology might be close to meeting the growing demand for pain-free, effective solutions to cavities that don't discourage people from coming back to the dentist's office for other serious problems such as gum disease.
"The procedure that's involved in cutting a cavity and giving an injection is in some ways really uncomfortable.
"For some patients it's a real phobia," Pitts said. "When patients are more relaxed, they'll come for monitoring."
Dentistry was changing, Pitts added.
"Quite a lot of what we're doing is about health and well-being," he said.
Pitts and his partner, dentist Christopher Longbottom, formed a company called Reminova to raise money and run patient trials of the technology in partnership with King's College. Academic research supporting the validity of the remineralisation technology is expected to be published in industry journals in coming months.
Pitts offered a "conservative" estimate that the devices would be used in Britain within three years. He and his team eventually want to see the technology used around the world.