Health and Medicine

Carolina brings cutting-edge dental surgery to the U.S.

UNC School of Dentistry professor Jessica Lee is embracing an innovative procedure in pediatric dentistry, saving kids from years of follow-up surgeries and restoring their smiles — and their confidence.

Jessica Lee speaks at podium
Jessica Lee, chair and distinguished professor at the UNC School of Dentistry, presents on autotransplantation. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill) (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Wisdom teeth might not be so useless after all.

Dentists at the UNC School of Dentistry are now using a technique called autotransplantation to relocate a child’s “throwaway” tooth — such as a wisdom tooth — to another spot in their mouth and repair their smiles.

The procedure has been conducted in other parts of the world, but UNC-Chapel Hill is bringing it to the forefront of pediatric dentistry in the United States for the first time.

“This is exactly what we’re about at Carolina,” said Jessica Lee, distinguished professor and chair of the pediatric dentistry department at the UNC School of Dentistry. “We’re able to take this innovative technique that’s great for patients, and we’re teaching our residents and students how to do it and serving a community that needs it.”

Unlike a dental implant, which would need to be replaced as soon as a child outgrows it, a real tooth moved from one part of the patient’s mouth to another continues to grow with the child.

And it’s not just a cosmetic procedure. Typically, when a tooth is transplanted, it encourages bone growth, which saves patients from follow-up surgeries like bone grafts later in life.

“That’s the truly amazing part of it, because we don’t have a lot of good ways to induce bone growth in medicine,” Lee said. “As far as I know, this is unique to dentistry right now.”

The procedure is already making an impact on local patients.

When a 10-year-old came to UNC Hospitals last year after a vehicle accident caused her to lose her front tooth, Lee knew that an autotransplant was the best option for the young patient.

“Of all the broken bones, what she really wanted was her smile back. That’s all she asked for,” Lee said. “I looked at this kid and I said, ‘If this were my child, I would try to restore her smile and give her a permanent fix that can grow with her, that she will have for the rest of her life.’ And that’s what we did.”

After months of preparation, Lee and small team of orthodontists, surgeons and other pediatric dentists, including an expert from Poland, came together to perform the surgery in January. Nine months after the procedure, the patient is doing great, and Lee is  looking ahead to other children who will benefit from the procedure.

She envisions UNC-Chapel Hill becoming a center for excellence for dental autotransplantation in the United States.

“This is a perfect example of how patient care, research and education come together,” she said. “The environment here at Carolina allows for and encourages that kind of innovation. This procedure just didn’t have a home in the U.S., and we want to be that home and be the people who are able to launch this.”

 Note: Lee’s team consisted of orthodontists John Christensen and Sonny Long; oral surgeon Glen Reside; pediatric dentists Beau Meyer and Siggi Saemundsson; and an international expert from Poland Pawel Plakwicz.