Teeth photography by Paul Edmondson

A couple of months ago, as Beth Nunez waited with her son for his dentist, Dr. Max Finn, to appear, she began idly looking around the sterile exam room. Although she usually enjoys reading magazines at doctors’ offices (because, she confesses, they’re the ones she normally doesn’t subscribe to), she didn’t see one within arm’s reach. But something else caught her eye. Sitting on the countertop was a pamphlet with the heading “StemSave, Saving Cells for Life.” The three-page booklet with its smiling, picturesque family gave Nunez the promise that if she would bank the stem cells found in her children’s teeth, they might one day save her kids’ lives.

The new technique was made possible by Dr. Songtao Shi. Six years ago, Shi rushed his daughter’s freshly pulled baby tooth to the National Institutes of Health lab in Maryland. That’s when he discovered that powerful stem cells—which are capable of turning into muscle, bone, nerve, blood, or skin—can be found in the tissue of primary teeth. Just as parents bank stem cells found in the umbilical cord at birth, Shi realized they could now bank stem cells found in teeth. These stem cells could be cryo-preserved until the day the technology is available for them to be manipulated into curing whatever ails a patient.

Sitting in her son’s dentist office, Nunez was sold. Her first husband died from cancer-related complications shortly after the couple had their son. Her current husband’s wife died from cancer, leaving behind two young girls (ages 9 months and 2 years). The Nunezes have always been concerned about the three kids’ futures, as cancer is obviously a threat. When they had a son, they were sure to bank his cord blood, and they wished they could have done the same for their other kids. But when Nunez saw the pamphlet in Finn’s office, she began to hope that her kids’ wisdom teeth will be just what the doctor ordered.

Since Finn started offering the service of banking stem cells this past summer, he’s had nine patients go through the process. He was one of the first dentists in Dallas to offer the service, and only a handful of dentists have joined him since.

“It’s one of those things I thought was coming down the line,” he says. “When I was taking out wisdom teeth, and I saw that tissue, I used to tell my staff that one of these days, we’re going to keep that.”

He was right. But little did he know what a simple process it would be. The patient comes in with a tooth that is on its way out, but still attached.
“If you see a tooth flapping in the wind, the pulp is going to be dead,” says Art Greco, CEO of StemSave, the company Finn uses to bank cells.

After the patient has arrived, Finn will remove the tooth, place it in a vial with solution, and put it in a thermal container, which is then boxed up. The kit is shipped off to New York, where StemSave’s lab is located. Researchers will then determine the cell’s viability. If the tooth is viable, the patient pays the initial $590 fee and then follows up with a $100 payment each year after. For many, this money is well-spent. “To me, it’s kind of like, if you do it maybe it ensures you won’t need it,” Finn says. “[Which is better] than not doing it and someday wishing you had. I think over the life of kids, it’s fairly inexpensive.”

Cord blood, while a great source of stem cells, is a bit more costly, with initial fees ranging from $900 to $2,000. Some medical professionals say it can also come at a time when a family is not prepared to make that decision.

Although the cells have not been used in human clinical trials, there is a lot of hope for what they can do. And we’re not just talking about eliminating dentures.  

“Regrowing teeth is an interesting and, in some cases, a medically important use of the cells,” says Jeff Johnson, president of BioEden, an Austin-based company that was the first in the country to offer the service of banking stem cells found in teeth. “[These cells are] very early stage stem cells. They can form just about any cell that’s needed to treat a condition or disease.”

Johnson created BioEden to ensure his own children’s future health. He was excited about the possibilities after he heard of finding stem cells in baby teeth. But when he searched for a company that provided storage of these stem cells, he found none. So in 2006, he created BioEden. “For me, it’s very much a personal commitment because my children’s cells are in the same storage system,” he says. The teeth marked No. 7 and No. 302 in the depths of BioEden’s lockers belong to his kids.

But Johnson had a few hurdles to jump when starting his company. With constant debates on the usage of embryonic stem cells making headlines, people were taken aback by his service. “The general public is still not that informed about it,” he says. “That’s been something that’s been a little bit of a challenge for us—to educate the people on the difference in embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.”

Finn says out of his handful of patients, only one has really questioned the ethics of using stem cells from teeth. “I’m going to throw them in a trash can,” he says by way of explanation. “Them being cryo-preserved for life versus being thrown in a trash can, there’s not much of an ethical discussion there. It’s not the embryonic argument, and you’re not creating or destroying a life. It’s putting away cells that already exist.”

While BioEden had a few struggles getting off the ground, the idea of banking stem cells is catching on. Several companies have popped up in the last few years, including StemSave.

Greco says that if you compare his company’s September 2008 numbers to September 2009 numbers, you’ll see a 400 percent growth in clients. Not bad for a service that stores something that may be valuable in the future. “Every organization is racing to produce stem-cell-based therapies,” Greco says. “So by using rejuvenated medicine, using the body’s ability to repair and maintain itself, we’re going down a path controlling disease and reversing trauma, as opposed to today’s medicine, which mitigates the effects of disease or trauma. It’s a different approach. People will live longer and healthier lives.”

Cristie Columbus and Clayton Roberts are certainly banking on stem cells. The couple always regretted they didn’t have the opportunity to bank their children’s cord blood. But now they have a second chance. As soon as they learned of the technology, they immediately decided to have their two children’s teeth stored. “I think it’s a safety net,” Columbus says. “There’s no guarantee that using them will be of benefit, but it gives me some peace of mind.”

Although the parents, who are both doctors at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, don’t know if putting their children’s teeth in a bank will help any more than putting them under a pillow, they’re willing to take a chance. “I don’t know [when it’ll pay off],” Roberts says. “It could be a few years to many tens of years. Hopefully, it’s sooner rather than later.” Write to [email protected].

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HARVESTING STEM CELLS 101

After your dentist removes your tooth, he puts it in a vial that is placed in a thermal container. The thermal container is then packed in an insulated shipping box and sent off to the lab. Technicians harvest the stem cells from the pulp of your tooth, check them for viability, and then cryogenically store them. One day, when the need arises and the technology’s there, you can pull out the stem cells and use them to regrow skin, muscle, ligaments, or just about anything.