Many parents are choosing to bank their baby’s cord blood at the time of birth. This blood contains stem cells which can be very useful in treating many different medical conditions, ranging from cancer to cerebral palsy. The stem cells derived from cord blood are more adaptive than those found in the bone marrow, which is the traditional source of these cells. When a baby is born, the blood is packed full of stem cells. Instead of simply discarding the umbilical cord, the cord blood can be used to harvest and bank stem cells. But not all parents bank their baby’s stem cells at the time of birth. Now, doctors are saving wisdom teeth so they can obtain stem cells in emergencies.
Sydney Addicks, a 19-year-old with type 1 diabetes, is a case in point. Because her pancreatic function is impaired, she must take daily insulin injections to control her blood sugar levels. She is still at risk for a long list of complications from her disease. Addicks recently had her wisdom teeth extracted and saved for later use. Diabetes can affect multiple organs in the body, and Addicks hopes that the stem cells she is banking will be helpful to her in the future should she need them.
Addicks’ dentist, Dr. Donald Cohen, is hopeful. He believes recent advances in medical science have made a reversal of diabetes imminent with stem cell treatments. The hope is that scientists will be able to convert the patient’s stem cells into insulin-producing cells. These cells would be sourced from the patients themselves and would replicate pancreatic function.
In addition to banking wisdom teeth, parents of young children now have the option to save their child’s baby or milk teeth. The tooth is extracted in a dentist’s office, preserved in a special solution, and shipped off for storage in a special lab. Collection kits from a company called Store-A-Tooth are available for use at home. People can use the kit to ship the tooth back to the company. However, if the tooth is not intact, then it is not possible to salvage stem cells from it. Therefore, to be certain, it is best to let a trained professional handle the process.
People who choose to save, preserve, ship, and store their wisdom teeth should be prepared for an upfront cost ranging anywhere from $850 to $2500. Stem cell labs also charge an annual storage fee of approximately $100. And all this is in preparation for what science could make possible in the future.
Current laws in the United States prohibit patients from receiving stem cell treatments. These therapies are considered experimental and their safety and efficacy have not been proven. Cohen agrees that policing research is important. “It’s a realistic fear that they could clone people,” he says. But even as scientists continue working on stem cell research, the prospect of a wisdom tooth helping to cure diabetes or grow heart muscle is mind-boggling and exciting.