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Profile: Tom Diekwisch sees growing future for tooth regeneration

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Tom Diekwisch

Regenerative dentistry helps patients eat, speak and improves their “overall sense of self-worth,” says Tom Diekwisch, head of oral biology.

Photo: Joshua Clark

Thanks to researchers like Tom Diekwisch, the day is at hand when people won’t need false teeth.

No more dentures afloat in a bedside glass. No more embarrassing lisps.

“Regenerative dentistry will allow patients to use their own dentition longer,” said Diekwisch (DEEK-wish), head of oral biology in the College of Dentistry.

“This will improve their ability to eat and speak, and also their overall sense of self-worth.”

This is good news for the 25 percent of Americans over 65 who’ve lost their teeth to decay or gum disease.

“The next big challenge in our field is regenerating entire tooth organs,” Diekwisch said.

Dentists will grow a patient a new tooth, either in his or her jawbone or in the lab for later implantation.

This will happen “in the near future,” he believes.

One scenario: “We will culture the tooth in an incubator, use a number of genes to coordinate its growth, then replant the tooth in the mouth.”

Already researchers in the Brodie Laboratory for Craniofacial Genetics, where Diekwisch is director, have grown stem cells from the periodontal ligament of rats’ molars.

They seeded the cells on barren rat molars, then reinserted the teeth into the animals’ tooth sockets. In two to four months, the stem cells aligned and formed new fibrous attachments between tooth and bone.

In contrast, molars replanted without stem cells were either lost or loosely attached.

Diekwisch has also grown frog and cow tooth enamel.

“I find tooth enamel astonishing, intriguing,” he said. “It’s the only substance in the human body devoid of living cells.

“It’s the hardest substance in the human body. Nature had to go to great lengths to manufacture such an unusual material. It employs protein that is different from any other protein.”

The science is relatively new. Researchers began applying genetic engineering to dentistry only about 10 years ago, Diekwisch said.

Asked about his own teeth, he pronounced them “excellent.” He has one filling.

His interest in dentistry was triggered at age 3 by his own protruding lower jaw, a condition his mother knew was hereditary.

She took him to a professor who was an expert in orthodontics.

“I was his youngest patient and his treatment was very successful,” Diekwisch recalled.

“As a result, he was extremely happy with me. Every time I came to visit, he took impressions that he used to show around at scientific meetings to document the success of his experiment.

“After 10 years, my prognathic condition had become completely normal and is no longer visible today. As a result, the visit to the dentist has been an extremely positive experience in my life.”

He was born Thomas Gustav Heinrich Diekwisch in Bielefeld, West Germany. His middle names honor his grandfathers.

Grandpa Heinrich Spruch “had a very strong influence on my life,” he said. “He collected stamps, which he then would be able to exchange for textbooks or books about nature.

“He knew all these books by heart and knew all the flowers and animals in our area. When I was young, he taught me everything he knew, and it was he who instilled in me my love for biology.”

At the Philipps-University of Marburg in Hesse, Diekwisch earned a Ph.D. in dental medicine and doctorates in anatomy (summa cum laude) and philosophy (magna cum laude).

He spent four years there as lecturer, clinical instructor and research associate before becoming a postdoctoral fellow in craniofacial biology at the University of Southern California. He then joined the faculty of Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas, coming to UIC seven years later.

A classical music fan, “I have quite a complete collection of Gustav Mahler,” he said. Other favorites include Beethoven, Bach, Bruchner and Brahms.

Diekwisch is also an avid photographer. He favors portraits of people and shots of bears he took in Alaska and Yellowstone National Park.

On campus he likes to shoot the buildings designed by architect Walter Netsch.

“Initially I thought his work was just concrete palaces, but over the years I grew to appreciate it,” Diekwisch said.


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