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Could your child's baby teeth be a life saver?

The tooth fairy could be on to something.  Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have discovered that banking your child's baby teeth may be an easier and more affordable alternative to saving your child's umbilical cord blood. Medical reporter and author Dr. Christine Dumas was invited on “Today” to discuss the new stem cell research that every parent should know about.

First, let's make clear that we're not talking about the controversial use of embryonic stem cells.  But why are some parents saving their baby's umbilical cord blood for stem cells?
Scientists discovered that blood stem cells taken from the umbilical cord could be used to treat a host of diseases — most commonly childhood leukemia, other cancers and immune disorders — which had been treated with bone marrow.

But as much as parents want their children to have the best of everything and to have every possible advantage in life, there are still a couple of issues for parents to think about before deciding to bank umbilical cord blood.

First, it isn't cheap.  It costs between $1,500 and $2,000, plus about $100 or more per year to store. So cost is a prohibitive factor. Expectant mothers already have too many decisions to make, and that's enough stress for anyone without this as a bonus prize.

Is it worth the time and trouble?
A lot of parents wonder, and some doctors as well, does it make sense for them to store the blood at their own personal expense for their child or their sibling on the incredibly small likelihood or probability that they'll ever use it or need it back again.

What does this new research tell us about stem cells and baby teeth?
In this brand new research, about to be released later today by the NIH and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, it looks like there's another place to find stem cells that can give rise to bone and neural cells — inside the pulp of baby teeth when they are lost by a child — and that this non-controversial source of stem cells could be banked for future health needs.How did the researcher make this discovery?
It was a rather amazing discovery made in a matter-of fact way. Dr. Songtao Shi had been doing research on the stem cells from bone marrow.

So one day, Dr. Songtao 6-year-old daughter had a tooth that was about to come out, and Dr. Songtao also happened to be trained as a pediatric dentist in addition to doing stem cell research at NIH. His daughter knew this, and instead of going to her mom to remove her first baby tooth, she went to her dentist dad instead.  And when her dad looked inside the central-front baby tooth that had just come out, he saw live pulp and a light bulb went off in his head.  He thought, I wonder if I could get stem cells from here.

He took it to the lab and found out that indeed there were stem cells there that could be harvested. But to do the real research, he had to wait for her next baby tooth to come out. He took that tooth to the lab at 10:30 p.m., collected the tissue and confirmed that there were indeed stem cells. And then, because he needed more baby teeth, he waited around like an expectant parent waiting for his daughter’s friends’ baby teeth to come out, and he did research on those too.

Did he think these stem cells might be able to induce bone formation and the formation of neural tissue?
For bone, he hypothesized that these stem cells from a baby tooth are the ones that result in the bone that is put down around the new permanent tooth as it comes in.  These stem cells give the order to "make bone," so they've got the blueprint in them.  He felt that they could be given cues to induce bone formation.

As for neural tissue, the stem cells from teeth share a common origin with neural tissue.

As their research progresses, Dr. Songtao and his team members hope that stem cells from baby teeth may one day restore nerve cells damaged by diseases like Parkinson’s — one of the most common neurological disorders affecting the elderly.

Researchers believe that with the proper cues, they may be able to encourage the stem cells to form nerve-like tissues which may restore cells that make dopamine — a brain chemical that nerve cells need to function properly.

So what's the difference between what umbilical cord blood stem cells can do and what baby tooth stem cells can do?
Right now, researchers know that from umbilical cord blood they can get blood stem cells. They can't get the blood stem cells from baby teeth — but they can get the bone and neural cells.

What would parents have to do to bank their baby's teeth?
First, they will have to let the tooth fall out naturally, when it's ready to come out. It's like picking fruit when it’s just right.  Too soon won't work, and if you wait too long and the tooth is dangling there for weeks, you can't get stem cells from it either. Front teeth are the best for gathering stem cells.

The researchers say that it will be really simple.  All a parent will have to do is put the tooth in a vial in a culture medium, milk will do, and keep it wrapped in an ice pack at 40 degrees. Then send it to the center using an overnight delivery service.

Will the NIH set up centers, and what will be the cost?
The NIH wish they could, but the researchers at NIH can't set up centers to bank baby teeth internally because it would be a conflict of interest.  Outside firms will be the ones who will soon be taking care of the banking of the teeth.

We don't have exact costs yet, but researchers believe that it will cost a whole lot less than what umbilical cord banking now costs, so millions more Americans will be able to do it without breaking their bank.

Should parents consider doing this when it becomes available?
It's important to understand the difference between the current medical use of cord blood or stem cells from baby teeth and the promise that such cells hold in the future.

If you bank the stem cells from your child's baby teeth now, by the time, God forbid, your child or a sibling might need them, the research will have progressed to a point where those stem cells might be able to make a huge difference in your child's life. And it's so simple to do; it will likely be worth the extra effort.

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