Odontoblasts: Specialized hard-tissue-forming cells in the dentin-pulp complex

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Odontoblasts are specialized cells that produce dentin and exhibit unique morphological characteristics; i.e., they extend cytoplasmic processes into dentinal tubules. While osteoblasts, which are typical hard-tissue-forming cells, are generated from mesenchymal stem cells during normal and pathological bone metabolism, the induction of odontoblasts only occurs once during tooth development, and odontoblasts survive throughout the lives of healthy teeth. During the differentiation of odontoblasts, signaling molecules from the inner enamel epithelium are considered necessary for the differentiation of odontoblast precursors, i.e., peripheral dental papilla cells. If odontoblasts are destroyed by severe external stimuli, such as deep caries, the differentiation of dental pulp stem cells into odontoblast-like cells is induced. Various bioactive molecules, such as non-collagenous proteins, might be involved in this process, although the precise mechanisms responsible for odontoblast differentiation have not been fully elucidated. Recently, our knowledge about the other functional activities of odontoblasts (apart from dentin formation) has increased. For example, it has been suggested that odontoblasts might act as nociceptive receptors, and surveillance cells that detect the invasion of exogenous pathogens. The regeneration of the dentin-pulp complex has recently gained much attention as a promising future treatment modality that could increase the longevity of pulpless teeth. Finally, congenital dentin anomalies, which are concerned with the disturbance of odontoblast functions, are summarized.

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