Healthbeat Report: Baby Teeth

October 20, 2011 (CHICAGO)

It turns out baby, wisdom and adult teeth also contain a type of stem cell. Some families are already banking on these cells to one day treat and cure serious family medical issues. But skeptics say save your money and wait for the science.

Baby teeth eventually come out. But they may have something more than sentimental value. In 2000, the National Institutes of Health concluded that teeth are a rich source of stem cells. So some parents are skipping the tooth fairy tradition and opting instead to have what's inside the teeth cryogenically frozen.

"She's going to lose her teeth anyway, why not put them to good use?" said Claudia Vigorito, mother.

Vigorito has banked four of her daughter's baby teeth. Her daughter is healthy but had heart issues as a baby. So she wants to keep the stem cells around as a future option.

"I'm hoping there will be enough research done to figure out how to regenerate tissue in the heart," said Vigorito.

How does it work? A dentist would actually have to extract the tooth before it falls out on its own. The tooth would then be packed in a kit and sent to a lab where the stem cells are harvested. Chicago pediatric dentist Joanne Oppenheimer has been offering the service through a special lab for several years.

"The front teeth have more stem cells in there then the molars, which seems like a bigger tooth but they seem to get more out of the front teeth," said Dr. Oppenheimer.

There are concerns. It's expensive. It can cost anywhere from close to $600 and more up front, plus around $100 a year to store the stem cells. And whether there will even be any practical use remains unclear.

In the human body there are a lot of reservoirs of stem cells. For example, we can get them from bone marrow or even umbilical cord blood. Those stem cells are already being used in lifesaving procedures. But the stem cells found in teeth are still being studied. Possible uses include regeneration of bone, repairing injured teeth even treating diabetes. Still, their worth is unclear.

There are many critics who say this is marketing before the science.

"There is virtually no medical or scientific rational for a parent doing this," said Dr. John Kessler, neurologist, Northwestern Medicine. "It's to make the parents feel guilty about doing something which is never going to help the child. It is not the right type of stem cells. There will be other sources of stems cells available."

Dr. Kessler is a leading researcher and advocate for stem cell research. He calls the banking of baby teeth is just modern snake oil and says parents should save their money.

"To give you an idea, I happen to have three grand children. My daughter-in-law asks me what should she do and I said don't even think about it," said Dr. Kessler.

But for families like the Vigoritos that "what if" factor is enough to justify the investment.

"It is definitely worth offering. If a parent wants it I think they should have the option to have it," said Vigorito.

Dr. Kessler says banked stem cells should come from umbilical cord blood and donated for research or be stored in a bank for general, not personal, use.

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