Next time your kid loses a tooth, keep that window locked at night. That dollar the tooth fairy may leave under the pillow isn't worth a fraction of what that baby tooth could worth be in the future.
Those baby teeth contain stem cells. And those stem cells may soon cure diseases.
For years, parents have been storing their children's umbilical cord blood in medical storage banks because of the potential its stem cells had for treating diseases later in life. The benefits were limited and uncertain in the early days, and the procedure is costly—one cord blood banking provider, Cord Blood Registry, for example, charges about $2,000 for initial collection, processing, and first-year storage.
But the potential benefits today are myriad. In 1988, cord blood stem cells were used to treat Fanconi anemia in a six-year-old boy—the first time such cells were successfully used to treat a disease. Now they're used effectively in treatments that formerly required bone marrow transplants. The young blood's poorly developed immune systems mean there is less chance they'll attack the recipient's body, as some transplants do. So far umbilical cord stem cells have been used to treat nearly 80 different diseases, according to the non-profit group International Cord Blood Society, from Hodgkin's disease, to leukemia, to multiple myeloma.
If you're already a parent, the problem with cord blood is it's too late to save some if you didn't already. Not necessarily so for baby teeth. If your child still has his or her baby teeth (or if the child's wisdom teeth aren't yet removed) the dental pulp inside those teeth contains the kind of stem cells that can regenerate into several different kinds of cells—like neurons, bone and cartilage, and certain cardiac cells to repair damaged heart tissue. Scientists have conducted many studies using dental pulp stem cells in animals, but the science with regard to humans is still nascent.
A company called Provia Labs is banking on the idea that baby-tooth banking will soon prove an effective treatment for diseases, including Type 1 diabetes. Recent research indicates dental pulp stem cells can be differentiated into pancreatic-type cells to produce insulin.
"Unfortunately, most of the one million Americans affected by the condition and the 15,000 children newly diagnosed each year missed the opportunity to bank stem cells from their cord blood when they were born," said Howard Greenman, chief executive for Provia, in a company press release. According to that press release, the company donates "up to 50 percent" of its proceeds to diabetes research. (Note there are other companies that provide tooth-banking services. I talked to Provia to learn more about the practice, but this does not constitute an endorsement.)
Provia bills its service—called "Store-A-Tooth"—as an alternative to cord blood banking that not only offers parents a bigger window, but is slightly cheaper. I called the company using the number on the website to get a few more details about pricing and how it works.
For $649, Provia does what's called a "whole tissue" preservation. That basically means you ship them your freshly plucked tooth or teeth, the lab extracts the soft tissue inside and immediately puts it in a cryo-protective solution so the tissue can be frozen for future use.
Dental pulp has to have had an adequate blood supply within at least 48 hours of being frozen. Any shorter and the cells die.
It's a bit of a "black hole" as the representative I spoke with told me: Lab technicians don't count or evaluate the quality of the stem cells in the sample. But if the sample is preliminarily deemed viable (if it's fresh enough and has been preserved correctly), random cultures among extant samples in the lab shows the technique is 100 percent effective so far. One advantage in some people's minds is that the technique preserves the original tissue as is, with minimal manipulation. Clients can store up to four teeth's worth for $120 a year.
The lab also offers a cultured cell service, whereby the pulp is extracted and placed in an enzymatic solution that separates the stem cells, which can then be cultivated. The disadvantage—though that "disadvantage" is probably meaningless—is that cultured cells aren't original, they're copies. The lab's official position is that there is no significant difference. One clear advantage is the lab has a clear sense of what it has. The stem cells are identified and counted. For the extra work and certainty, the cultured service costs an extra $425.
Stem cell preservation is different, of course, than capturing DNA, and the cells have to be living to be of any use. That means the dental pulp has to have had an adequate blood supply within at least 48 hours of being frozen. Any shorter and the cells die. That means people have to plan ahead. The company provides a storage container and preservation solution to have at the ready. Customers plunk the newly-extracted teeth in the container and ship them overnight to the lab.
That also means that if your eight-year-old has been playing with his tooth for a week as it hangs from his gums by a thread, it may be too late. There's a chance that tooth hasn't gotten enough blood for a while.
Maybe next time. Tie that thing to a string and a doorknob and get it over with.