Periodontitis is a highly prevalent inflammatory disease that results in damage to the tooth-supporting tissues, potentially leading to tooth loss. Periodontal tissue regeneration is a complex process that involves the collaboration of two hard tissues (cementum and alveolar bone) and two soft tissues (gingiva and periodontal ligament). To date, no periodontal-regenerative procedures provide predictable clinical outcomes. To understand the rational basis of regenerative procedures, a better understanding of the events associated with the formation of periodontal components will help to establish reliable strategies for clinical practice. An important aspect of this is the role of the Hertwig's epithelial root sheath in periodontal development and that of its descendants, the epithelial cell rests of Malassez, in the maintenance of the periodontium. An important structure during tooth root development, the Hertwig's epithelial root sheath is not only a barrier between the dental follicle and dental papilla cells but is also involved in determining the shape, size and number of roots and in the development of dentin and cementum, and may act as a source of mesenchymal progenitor cells for cementoblasts. In adulthood, the epithelial cell rests of Malassez are the only odontogenic epithelial population in the periodontal ligament. Although there is no general agreement on the functions of the epithelial cell rests of Malassez, accumulating evidence suggests that the putative roles of the epithelial cell rests of Malassez in adult periodontal ligament include maintaining periodontal ligament homeostasis to prevent ankylosis and maintain periodontal ligament space, to prevent root resorption, to serve as a target during periodontal ligament innervation and to contribute to cementum repair. Recently, ovine epithelial cell rests of Malassez cells have been shown to harbor clonogenic epithelial stem-cell populations that demonstrate similar properties to mesenchymal stromal/stem cells, both functionally and phenotypically. Therefore, the epithelial cell rests of Malassez, rather than being 'cell rests', as indicated by their name, are an important source of stem cells that might play a pivotal role in periodontal regeneration.
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