Colorado dentists bank stem cells in teeth
The Denver Post
Think of them as real-life tooth fairies.
Just a few years after the explosion of research into dental stem cells, companies that will bank the cells for future, potentially life-saving therapies are gaining ground across the country.
About 10 dentists in Colorado, as well as several parents, are collecting baby and wisdom teeth in kits and shipping them to labs for cold storage.
The companies charge a collection fee of about $600, plus $89 to $100 each year to keep the cells in vaporized liquid nitrogen, chilled to about 300 degrees below zero.
Company officials and their scientists tout the vast potential of dental stem cells, saying they someday could cure diseases including Parkinson’s, diabetes and muscular dystrophy. Stem cells from teeth will regenerate bone, muscle and nerve tissue, they say.
But other scientists, including some top stem-cell researchers, say the companies are preying upon parents’ fears that their children might someday develop a fatal or debilitating disease. Company websites stress urgency ” “Time is essential” and “One day, the tooth fairy could save your child’s life.”
“This is pretty crazy,” said Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology. “There are multiple kinds of leaps of faith here that are required.”
Still, many are willing to shell out the money to preserve their teeth and for the chance of a cure later in life. Dr. John Lupori of Alpine Oral and Facial Surgery in Steamboat Springs first collected teeth for a storage bank several weeks ago and has done it a few times since then.
For Miriam Pensack’s family, it wasn’t a difficult decision.
The 17-year-old from Steamboat Springs has the same heart condition that caused her father to get a heart transplant. She was unconscious at Lupori’s office, about to get her wisdom teeth pulled, when her dad learned about StemSave, a New York company that stores dental stem cells.
“If, God forbid, I needed a heart transplant, . . . we think stem cells would be hugely beneficial,” said Pensack, who learned through genetic testing that she had inherited hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that can cause sudden death in athletes.
The teenager’s father, physician and psychiatrist Robert Pensack, said he wasn’t thinking just of Miriam’s heart condition when he decided to save her dental stem cells.
“It’s my personal belief that stem cells are going to revolutionize medicine,” he said. “As she ages, as all of us will, she could come down with all kinds of other illnesses.”
StemSave pays dentists across the country ” only one in Colorado so far ” to collect newly extracted teeth and ship them to their lab. Dentists receive $90 per service.
At the lab, StemSave extracts the stem cells from teeth.
StemSave chief executive Art Greco says the younger the tooth, the better. Baby teeth are a great source because they are falling out anyway, he said.
“We’ve made it very easy ” easy for patients and easy for dentists,” Greco said. “We make it very, very affordable.”
Another company, BioEden Group of Austin, Texas, lets parents collect a baby tooth, preserve it in milk and send it in a chilled hard-foam box to the lab.
BioEden works with several Colorado dentists who get paid $100 per service.
BioEden was the first company to bank dental stem cells, and it has labs in Europe and Thailand, said director of operations Jeff Johnson. The company is offering dental stem cells donated for research to the University of Texas and King’s College in England in hopes of accelerating stem-cell therapies.
“No one knows the limits,” Johnson said. “It’s not a very large leap from where we are today to some very real therapies.”
As for critics who accuse BioEden and others of taking advantage of fears, Johnson says his company is only offering parents a service and leaving the choice up to them.
Scientists discovered stem cells in teeth in 2000, and research on the topic mushroomed in 2004. The bulk of the work is focused on getting dental stem cells to regrow teeth or parts of teeth, said Jeff Stansbury, associate dean for research at the University of Colorado Denver School of Dental Medicine.
Someday, dentists might be able to repair cavities with stem cells instead of synthetic fillings. And on the “long-term horizon,” dental stem cells might be used to regrow teeth for people who otherwise would need dentures, Stansbury said.
Unlike embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to grow into any body tissue, dental stem cells have already differentiated into specific tissues, Stansbury said.
Stansbury and other scientists said they do not doubt that doctors eventually will be able to harvest all sorts of stem cells in the body. For now, he is not advocating that people collect their teeth.
“At this point,” he said, “it’s still a long shot.”