- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Instead of leaving baby teeth out for the tooth fairy, parents might do better to send them to doctors, who someday could harvest their hidden stem cells to help combat diseases, researchers reported yesterday.
Just like those in the primordial tissue from which all organs arise, the stem cells in baby teeth can transform themselves into nerve and fat cells in laboratory dishes, said the investigators in the report, which appears online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the future, stem cells plucked from a child's discarded molar could be frozen in cell banks to benefit its donor for decades.
"Deciduous teeth … may be an ideal resource of stem cells to repair damaged tooth structures, induce bone regeneration and possibly to treat neural tissue injury or degenerative diseases," the report said.
Dr. Songtao Shi, a stem-cell researcher and pediatric dentist at the National Institutes of Health, said the baby-tooth stem cells are prolific and versatile.
"These cells are a very surprising resource that is exciting, and they are very capable of providing huge numbers of cells," he said in an interview with UPI.
All stem cells begin as "blanks" without a dedicated task, unlike nerve, blood, fat and other cells. They can become specialized, a potential scientists have been attempting to harness in order to replace damaged cells in diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes.
Stem cells from embryos can transform into virtually any of the more than 200 types of cells found in the human body. But extracting those cells requires the destruction of the embryo, which is opposed by pro-life groups, many lawmakers and including President Bush.
"Of course they pose a major controversy. It's ethically very tough to deal with embryonic stem cells," Dr. Shi acknowledged.
Two years ago, Dr. Shi's daughter, then 6, lost her first baby teeth.
"I'm a pediatric dentist, so naturally I was the first person to take care of it," Dr. Shi said.
"Then I thought about the pulp tissue left inside. I was a dentist for years, but I never even thought about baby teeth until I looked at my daughter's carefully," he recalled.
Because children are physically immature, stem cells from baby teeth could differ importantly from those from adults studied so far.
Dr. Shi and his team, experimenting with baby teeth from seven children, found that human stem cells from the pulp not only became a range of cells, but also could trigger bone formation in mice. They also found the cells multiply two to three times faster than stem cells from adult bone marrow and adult teeth.
Incisors and canines only yield roughly 20 stem cells each, with molars yielding fewer still. Nevertheless, each stem cell from a baby tooth can reproduce itself billions of times.
"We haven't had a problem with having enough cells to work with," Dr. Shi said.
Someday, he added, we can ask parents to put the baby tooth that comes out in milk, put it in the refrigerator and give a call the next day, and we can get stem cells out.
"You can freeze them in liquid nitrogen and save them for years and years," he said.
If the cells are grown into tissues and implanted back into a person's body, they should avoid the immune rejection often seen in organ transplants. "But more studies definitely need to be done before we can use them to treat disease," Dr. Shi said.

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