Stem Cells: How Baby Teeth Can Save Your Life
The following article is reproduced without any alterations from the Woman Dentist Journal 2009. The author of the original article is Joanne Oppenheim, DDS, a pediatric dentist in Illinois. As Bellevue Dentists we do not normally print other peoples' articles, but this discussion of stem cells harvested from baby teeth is something of very high interest for later health of an individual. As the article points out, stem cells may be taken from baby teeth and preserved for many years for potential use to cure a disease as children age and grow older.
My interest in stem cell preservation and research began about 12 years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter. I remember reading an article about saving the cells from the umbilical cord after the birth of the child for research. A week before my due date, I picked up the kit from a hospital and told my doctor about my wishes to preserve the umbilical cord stem cells for my daughter. To my surprise, my obstetrician had never done this procedure before. I quickly realized that this would be a learning experience for all! While still in the delivery room just after my daughter was born, I explained to the doctor what to do with the cord blood.
Since that time, much has changed. I would venture to guess that almost anyone who is pregnant or has had a baby recently has heard about cord blood banking. And since the birth of my daughter, my nieces and nephews have had their cord blood saved as an insurance policy for their future.
In the spring of 2008, I read an article about preserving the stem cells from baby teeth. My first thought was that it was a waste having all of my children's teeth sent to the tooth fairy instead of to StemSave. During the annual American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry meeting in May, I spoke with the people at the StemSave table. They were doing the same thing with baby teeth as the people 12 years ago were doing with the cord blood.
The value of stem cells in the curing of so many of the deadliest diseases is much better understood today. If we can save the stem cells from baby teeth, it is like receiving another opportunity for the people who did not save their babies' cord blood.
The more I've come to learn about stem cells, the more I realize the potential benefits to people. I like to think that since we've learned that very powerful stem cells exist in teeth, we dentists are on the frontlines of this emerging medicine. When I think of the potential of thousands of teeth that are discarded as medical waste, I realize that patients and parents of patients should be given the opportunity to decide if they want to hang on to those stem cells.
All of the parents of our patients who will soon be losing teeth — whether naturally or for orthodontic reasons — receive the pamphlet on StemSave. The parents decide if this is something they would be interested in. It's a very personal decision, and I like to offer families all of the facts so they can make an informed decision. I recommend going to the Web site, but if they have any questions, they are welcome to call me.
Once parents choose to save their child's baby teeth, we explain to the child that we will give them a special tooth box and the tooth fairy will still come to their house. There is so much emotion and nostalgia associated with losing baby teeth. While parents may want to take the traditional under-the-pillow route with the first tooth, we try to create a new sense of excitement with sending the tooth off to StemSave. We encourage the child to draw a picture or write a note to let the tooth fairy know where the tooth is and that we only need the stuff on the inside and she can take the stuff on the outside!
When a child comes in for the extraction of a tooth, nothing is different for me. It's the parents' responsibility to preregister with StemSave. They handle the transaction directly with StemSave so I don't have any additional paperwork. When the child sits in the chair for the extraction, the parents have already set up their account with StemSave. Prior to the appointment, StemSave will send a personalized transport kit for the child to my office. The transport kit is ingeniously simple to use. After I extract the tooth, I just drop it into a vial which is marked for that patient. The vial has nutrients that keep the tooth intact. It is placed in the kit, which is designed to induce hypothermia in the tooth without the use of frozen gel packs, so the stem cells are protected during transport to StemSave's lab. After recovering and securing the tooth in the kit, we notify StemSave and they arrange for UPS pickup, and the kit is delivered to their lab for processing.
Our hopes are that these teeth are never needed. Unfortunately, we cannot know who will have medical problems in the future and will need their stem cells for a cure. Whoever would have thought that your baby teeth could save your life?
Sources of Dental Stem Cells
In a child, the most accessible stem cells are from the oral cavity. For deciduous teeth, the best candidates are moderately resorbed canine and incisors with the presence of healthy pulp. In children, other sources of easily accessible stem cells are supernumerary teeth, mesodens, over-retained deciduous teeth associated with congenitally missing permanent teeth, and prophylactically removed deciduous molars for orthodontic indications.
Conceptually, dental stem cells have the potential to differentiate into neural cell lineages. Recently, investigators have discovered a unique type of stem cell in the dental pulp of deciduous teeth. Stem cells from deciduous teeth, which are formed during the sixth week of human development, behave differently than other adult stem cells. These immature stem cells are capable of extensive proliferation and differentiation, which make them an important resource of stem cells for the regeneration and repair of craniofacial defects, tooth loss, and bone regeneration. However, a number of recent studies show that stem cells from teeth may be manipulated to grow into cell types of a completely different tissue. This ability is called transdifferentiation or plasticity, and different types of adult stem cells have varying degrees of plasticity. Given their ability to produce and secrete neurotrophic factors, dental stem cells may also be beneficial for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases and the repair of motoneurons following injury. Indeed, dental stem cells from deciduous teeth have been induced to express neural markers such as nestin. The expression of neural markers in dental stem cells stimulates the imagination for their potential use in neural regeneration such as in the treatment of Parkinson's disease. The potential of dental stem cells in both dental and non-dental regeneration continues to be further explored by researchers. Dental stem cells that have been isolated to date, either from deciduous teeth or permanent teeth, are considered non-embryonic or adult stem cells.
Courtesy of Dr. Mao
Stem cells recovered from dental pulp can differentiate into bone, cartilage, and adipose cells in vitro (outside the body).
Courtesy of Dr. Mao
A unique property of stem cells is that they are able to proliferate in vitro in a cell culture medium.