Storing dental stem cells for future medical use.
When your child loses a tooth, you likely spin them a tale of the tooth fairy slipping into their room at night to replace the tooth under their pillow with money. Job done. The tooth fairy whisks the tooth away to some secret land. A tooth bank sounds like a place you might tell your child that the tooth fairy stores the baby teeth, but tooth banking is a very real concept—though it’s one that involves enough advanced technology to sound like it’s straight from a science fiction novel instead of a fairy tale, let alone reality!
Tooth banking is a fascinating process in which dental stem cells are extracted from your child’s lost baby teeth and cryogenically frozen for potential use in future medical treatments later in their life. As your child begins to lose their first baby teeth, you might be hearing this term more often. But does it actually have the potential to benefit your child or should “tooth banks” remain the tooth fairy’s domain? This is a complex topic, so we’ve broken it down to help you determine the best course of action for your little one.
How Tooth Banking Works
When looked at from your end, tooth banking is relatively simple. If you decide you want to bank your child’s dental stem cells, it’s simply a matter of choosing a tooth banking service and waiting for a tooth to become loose. The cells in the pulp of a tooth start deteriorating when a tooth falls out, so some tooth banking services recommend a dentist extracts your child’s tooth as soon as it becomes loose. Other services, however, accept teeth that fall out at home, though you’ll need to follow instructions to preserve the tooth and send it to the facility right away.
Different tooth banking services have different requirements, but your child’s tooth will generally need to arrive at the facility of your choice quickly, ideally overnight but no later than 48 hours after the tooth was lost. This provides the best chance that the pulp inside the tooth is alive and still contains viable stem cells. Once a tooth arrives at a tooth banking facility, the science-fiction-made-fact kicks into high gear. Stem cells are extracted from the tooth pulp, cultured to increase their numbers, and checked for viability before being cryogenically frozen and stored.
Thanks to their ability to develop into different types of cells, stem cells as a whole have a staggering number of potential uses in future medical treatments. Scientists are exploring stem cells as potential future treatments for illnesses like heart disease, type 1 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, and repairing or even growing damaged organs. Amazing, right? Your child’s baby teeth are a readily available, non-invasive source of their own stem cells. The hope is that these stem cells will one day have the potential to help treat a wide range of future illnesses, potentially saving your child’s life. At the very least, scientists hope that the stem cells will be able to help treat dental issues, including potentially growing new teeth to replace lost ones.
Drawbacks and Risks
While all of this sounds incredibly promising, none of these uses are guaranteed. One of the biggest obstacles to the use of dental stem cells in treatments for wider-ranging issues like cancer and heart disease is the fact that there are different types of stem cells. Only some of them, called pluripotent stem cells, can turn into any type of cell. Many varieties of stem cells, including dental stem cells, can only develop into different types of cells within a certain family, such as blood cells. A recent breakthrough in stem cell research, however, showed that it’s possible to turn specialized stem cells into pluripotent stem cells. The resulting stem cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS.
The hope behind tooth banking is that dental stem cells—and other types of more specialized stem cells—can be turned into iPS and used in potentially life-saving treatments. Even with the ability to create iPS, though, these treatments are a long way off. Developing treatments using iPS is difficult and time-consuming, and these potential treatments aren’t risk-free. The cells might not work as expected once in the body, and since iPS can develop into any type of cell, there is a risk that they’ll cause tumors to develop. Stem cell therapy has massive potential, but it’ll take time to figure out exactly how they can help us and what conditions they can treat.
Criticisms and Concerns
Despite the discovery of iPS, there are critics of tooth banking who believe it’s unlikely that dental stem cells will ever be used for treatments outside of dentistry, though they admit they could be used for tooth and gum regeneration. Some critics argue that even if stem cell therapy becomes a viable treatment, your child still may not need their dental stem cells. By the time stem cell therapy for their illness is developed, these critics point out that there may be a different, better treatment available. On the other hand, your child may simply never develop an illness that’s treatable with stem cells and therefore may never need them.
Additionally, while acknowledging the potential of iPS and stem cell therapy, the FDA has officially voiced concerns about unproven stem cell treatments being offered to desperate or uninformed people. These unproven treatments haven’t gone through the rigorous screening process that determines whether or not they’re safe, so they have a higher risk of causing harmful side effects. Stem cell therapy could be revolutionary for medicine, but right now it’s in its infancy—always do your research and ensure the treatment being offered to you has been approved by the FDA before you sign up for it!
Should you do it?
Tooth banking is a complex topic with stakes in a lot of developing science and future medical treatments, so there’s no solid answer regarding whether or not you should invest in it. The decision is entirely up to you! If you have the money to invest in tooth banking, you may feel it’s worth it—especially if your family has a history of developing conditions that stem cell therapy may one day play a role in treating. The only certainty is that tooth banking isn’t a necessity! Since there’s no guarantee that developing these treatments using iPS made from dental stem cells will be developed any time soon or that these treatments will be needed by your child, the cost of banking your child’s tooth isn’t one you need to feel compelled to take on. The decision is entirely yours!
Tooth banking and stem cell therapy are complicated topics, but it’s wise to know which route you’re planning on taking by the time the tooth fairy comes calling on your little one. If you have any lingering questions about tooth banking, feel free to call our office and schedule a consultation with your child’s pediatric dentist at any time.