Why Tooth Banking Might Just Be The Next Wave In Stem Cell Research

05.26.17 5 months ago 3 Comments

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Placentas, umbilical cords… pretty much anything that comes out of a woman’s body is awesome in science speak. Stem cells are the master cells of the body, just waiting to help you out when you get sick. They’re your own personal repair kit, but, like anything, time kind of screws them up. They become damaged or mutated thanks to environmental factors and the aging process and one day, they lose their incredible healing abilities altogether.

The good news is, science has finally tapped into the potential of stem cell research and, in doing so, scientists have found a solution for all that wasted power: babies. Yes, babies are disgusting blobs that poop, eat, and slobber their parents to an early grave, but those little devils also just happen to have a whole army of brand new stem cells still in their original packaging. The key is to get them before they sell out. (I’m starting to equate body parts with consumerism and it’s getting creepy so I’ll stop now.)

Placenta blood, placenta tissue, and cord blood are three sources of stem cells doctors are urging new parents to consider saving after the mom gives birth. They provide a range of cool benefits – from treating certain forms of cancer to helping people heal from spinal cord injuries — and they can be cryogenically frozen to help a body out whenever it needs some extra healing power. And yes, some people do eat them. Google it, there are… recipes.

But while the placenta party has been raging for a while now, there’s a new method of extracting stem cells that can be done all the way up into a person’s teen years, and all it takes is a quick trip to the dentist. Tooth banking has become the latest way people are choosing to cryogenically secure their gene sequence.

In 2013, Songtao Shi, a dentist, was researching regenerative dentistry in a lab when Shi witnessed something extraordinary. He discovered that when you get a cavity, the dentin — the inner, hard layer of your tooth that protects the nerve and pulp from exposure — builds up. Basically, your tooth tries to protect itself by making more organic matter.

This led Shi to conclude that stem cells did, in fact, exist in teeth. A bit more study found that while stem cells in adult molars were able to create more dentin — which is great if you want to re-grow lost teeth instead of paying a fortune for an implant — baby teeth, or SHED cells (stem cells from human exfoliated deciduous teeth) contained a whole different set of code.

While cord blood and placenta tissue contain Hematopoietic stem cells which have been used for decades to treat over 80 different diseases, SHED cells contain mesenchymal stem cells which differentiate into nerve cells as well as bone, cartilage, muscle, and fat. Cord blood contains mesenchymal stem cells too, but according to Shi’s research, SHED cells were able to create something unusual, “dentin osteogenic material” – a material that’s not quite dentin, not quite bone but full of possibilities – like the ability to reconstruct bone.

Extracting dental stem cells is a complicated and sensitive process. First, the soft tissue has to be extracted, then it has to be disinfected (spoiler alert: your mouth is a cesspool of germs). Scientists then drill through the enamel and dentin to get to the pulp of the tooth where all the stem cells like to hide out. They take the pulp out, digest it with an enzyme, and culture the cells.

It’s a lot of work, but the payoff is huge. Even tiny bits of dental pulp can carry hundreds of millions of stem cells.

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