Parents may want to ask the Tooth Fairy to leave their child’s lost baby tooth at a tooth bank facility, say some scientists. That’s because those baby teeth contain stem cells that may help fight certain diseases or regrow a lost adult tooth in the future.
Dental Pulp of Lost Baby Teeth Contains Stem Cells
In 2011, researchers discovered a new source of stem cells: the dental pulp tissue in baby teeth. Experimental research suggests these stem cells can rebuild the surface of a tooth or treat tooth loss from injury. Some studies even suggest that stem cells from teeth could be used to create bone marrow or treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Pulp Fiction? The Truth Behind the Claims
The possibilities for using stem cells from baby teeth are promising, say some scientists. They believe there are many potential uses for stem cells within “regenerative” medicine. This type of medicine helps the body to heal or repair when the body can’t do it on its own. Dental stem cells show promise because the same category of stem cells have been taken from other sources, such as animals, and used for regenerative medicine. However, it will take years of testing to ensure using dental stem cells in these ways are safe and effective.
In fact, some scientists don’t think storing baby teeth for their stem cells is worth the effort or money. One article reviewing stem cell treatment writes that “broad claims are being made by some stem cell treatment clinics that go far beyond what current science supports. Experts say those exaggerated claims are taking advantage of the most vulnerable and desperate. That includes patients and families desperately searching for cures modern medicine has yet to develop – like a cure for autism, Alzheimer’s disease, MS and Parkinson’s disease.”
There are also government regulations to consider. Dr. Pamela Robey from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research wrote an important reminder in her study that “the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve the use of dental stem cells in medical procedures.”
Should Parents Preserve Their Child’s Baby Teeth?
Companies are now storing stem cells from children’s baby teeth for a hefty fee. These tooth banks will work with parents and their dentist to collect the tooth. (Tooth banking requires that a dentist pull the tooth before it falls out.) Then the tooth bank will separate the dental pulp tissue from the rest of the tooth. Preserving the dental pulp so that it’s still usable years from now requires very specific—and expensive—technology. One method called “cryopreservation” keeps the cells alive by cooling them to a sub-zero temperature of liquid nitrogen. Another method uses a “weak magnetic field” to freeze the cells so that they don’t die. The tooth bank will store the frozen tissue or cells until you need them—or that’s the idea, anyway. To date, scientists have not yet figured out how to use these cells to regrow a tooth. Science also does not yet support using dental pulp stem cells for other purposes.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) notes that harvesting dental stem cells is an emerging science. In a policy statement, the AAPD “encourages dentists to follow evidence-based literature in order to educate parents about the collection, storage, viability, and use of dental stem cells with respect to autologous regenerative therapies.”