Stem cells, which differ from other types of cells in the human body in that they’re capable of renewing themselves almost indefinitely and changing into more specialized cells with the potential to repair or replace specific tissues and organs, were discovered more than 100 years ago and, according to the National Institutes of Health, remain one of the most promising frontiers of medical research:
Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer new potentials for treating diseases such as diabetes, and heart disease. However, much work remains to be done in the laboratory and the clinic to understand how to use these cells for cell-based therapies to treat disease, which is also referred to as regenerative or reparative medicine.
There are two basic kinds of stem cells, embryonic and adult. The former can only harvested from human embryos, while the latter are found in a variety of human tissues such as bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, fat, and, since 2003, baby teeth. The scientists who discovered that the pulp of baby teeth is rich in stem cells also noted that SHED (“stem cells from human exfoliated deciduous teeth”) have unique properties:
They are long lived, grow rapidly in culture, and, with careful prompting in the laboratory, have the potential to induce the formation of specialized dentin, bone, and neuronal cells. If followup studies extend these initial findings, the scientists speculate they may have identified an important and easily accessible source of stem cells that possibly could be manipulated to repair damaged teeth, induce the regeneration of bone, and treat neural injury or disease.
Another innovation in stem cell technology is the implementation of stem cell banks — specifically, cord blood stem cell banks and dental stem cell banks for the purpose of enabling parents to cryopreserve and store their children’s stem cells for use in reparative or regenerative medical treatments later in life. Any number of articles touting the use of such facilities are circulating online, including “Doctors Are Urging Parents Everywhere to Keep Their Kids’ Baby Teeth,” which, despite its title, doesn’t name or quote a single physician who actually recommends it.
Nor is there any mention of the cost of these services. One such facility, called Store-A-Tooth, charges $1,749 up front plus $120 per year for storage. Another, The Tooth Bank, charges $475 plus $115 per year for storage. And there’s StemSave, whose services cost $630 up front and $120 per year. There are others within approximately the same range.
The main question facing most parents, then, is whether the potential benefits of preserving their kids’ baby teeth justify the expense. The answer is possibly not. Research is ongoing and the future looks promising, but no one can predict when or to what degree those promises will be fulfilled. To date, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve the use of dental stem cells in any medical procedure.
This is what the California Dental Association had to say about dental stem cell banking in 2013:
Scientific study into cell-based therapies has identified tremendous potential for the use of stem cells to treat a number of diseases and disorders. As research has advanced, stem cell banking services, primarily umbilical cord blood banking, have sprung up around the country. More recently, researchers have discovered that stem cells harvested from deciduous teeth may be a source of tissue regeneration and repair. Like the marketing of umbilical cord banking to pregnant women, dental pulp stem cell tissue banks have begun to market to dentists and the public. Despite its exciting potential, experts agree it is premature to consider dental pulp stem cells as a source of cells for replacing or regenerating tissue.
“What we do know,” the CDA quotes Dr. Pamela Robey of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research as saying, “is the cells from dental pulp in baby or wisdom teeth have the ability to make dentin and pulp and they might have the ability to make bone, but right now that’s all we really know for sure … we can’t say how useful for the future they’ll be.”
Considering the uncertainties and the cost, then, parents would be well advised to seek the opinion of a knowledgeable medical professional and carefully weigh their decision before investing in a baby tooth bank account.