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Harvesting Stem Cells from Children's Teeth

red-headed girl making peace sign and smiling with teethWhat if a routine visit to the dentist could provide some peace of mind about your child’s future health? Thanks to the latest in stem cell technology—extracting stem cells from children’s teeth—that might not be too far-fetched.

Widespread studies  in recent years have shown the potential of harvesting stem cells from a new mother’s umbilical cord to treat leukemia and blood-related cancers. Now, many pediatric dentists are looking carefully at their young patients’ teeth, and harvesting stem cells that could be used in a host of both dental and medical applications.

The discovery of stem cells in dental pulp occurred in 2000, and the cells have since proven effective in treating periodontal disease and in regenerating jaw bone. These cells are now being studied for how they may someday play a role in treating everything from diabetes to liver disease to cardiovascular disease to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

“Parents are very interested in the possibility of identifying sources of stem cells from their child, and then harvesting and storing them so they might be able to use them to treat a yet-unforeseen condition,” says Dr. Joel Berg, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

Any Child Is a Candidate for Stem Cell Harvesting

As with any new technology, there are many factors parents must take into consideration. According to Dennis W. Lam, DDS, a pediatric dentist in Florham Park who harvests stem cells in his practice, the good news is that virtually any child could be a candidate for the procedure. Stem cells may be taken from both a child’s primary teeth, as well as young permanent teeth extracted for reasons other than tooth decay or dental infection—such as wisdom teeth removal or orthodontic treatment. 

“Baby teeth fall out naturally. With just a little planning, parents can easily work with the dentist to time this natural process and extract the tooth when valuable stem cells can be harvested,” Dr. Lam says. “In other instances, orthodontists need teeth extracted as part of the orthodontic treatment. These teeth are often perfect candidates for stem cell harvesting . . . without special dental procedures or treatment.”

The kind of stem cells found in dental pulp are currently being investigated for use in organ replacement therapy, certain neurological diseases, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases.

While your child’s dentist doesn’t actually harvest the stem cells, he or she will properly handle the teeth to keep dental pulp intact before packaging and shipping the tooth to a lab for harvesting and storage.

“Considering ongoing research involving stem cell-related treatment and therapy, the potential value of storing stem cells for a child’s future makes a lot of sense,” Dr. Lam says.

However, the harvesting and the long-term storage of your child’s stem cell tissue isn’t necessarily an inexpensive investment, Dr. Berg warns. The other issue is that there are no guarantees that these cells will help treat your child if he should develop a disease later in life.

“We can harvest and store these cells, but nobody can say definitively that parents will be able to use them,” Dr. Berg asserts.

Life-saving Potential of Stem Cells

Stem cells harvested from umbilical cord blood have given researchers hope in the life-saving potential of this unusual resource. In fact, they’ve been used in medical therapies since the first bone marrow transplant was performed in 1968. While stem cells in dental pulp could be just as powerful, they do have different properties. Umbilical cord blood can yield two kinds of stem cells, while only one kind of stem cells can be harvested from dental pulp. The stem cells that are unique to umbilical cord blood have proven useful in treating certain blood disorders, but the therapies for the other type of stem cells 
are still in development stages. 

“However, these cells have been found to form nerve-like tissue, and have also been shown to enhance wound healing,” Dr. Lam says. As such, the kind of stem cells found in dental pulp are currently being investigated for use in organ replacement therapy, certain neurological diseases, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases.

“We’re doing the right thing in developing this technology. Dental stem cells may become cells that can heal your child. Science improves every year, and so does our understanding of what they can do. If a child 
develops a certain kind of cancer, they may be able to help kill the tumor and direct healthy cells to grow,” Dr. Berg says. “Whatever we think stem cells can do today is only going to improve with time.”

Quick Facts

  • Discovery of stem cells in dental pulp occurred in 2000
  • Stem cells may be taken from a child’s primary teeth, as well as young permanent teeth extracted for reasons other than tooth decay or dental infection
  • Dental stem cells may become cells that can heal your child . . . If a child develops a certain kind of cancer, they may be able to help kill the tumor

Jennifer L. Nelson is a freelance writer who often writes about health and wellness.

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