Life

Stem cells are the future

This week, Lucy explains how stem cells first discovered in baby-teeth have sparked a medical revolution

Stem cells extracted from teeth can be used to help 'regenerate' other parts of the body
Lucy Stock

IN 2000, the scientist Dr Sontoa Shi discovered stem cells in the tooth nerve chamber though an accident and curiosity.

His six-year-old daughter Julia was losing her milk teeth and it was from there that Shi found that teeth contained stem cells. This discovery was announced three years later.

Stem cells are unprogrammed cells in the human body that can be described as 'shape shifters.'

These cells have the ability to change into other types of cells. Because stem cells can become bone, muscle, cartilage and other specialised types of cells, they offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues.

This brings the potential to treat diseases like eyesight degeneration, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer.

Eventually, they may also be used to regenerate organs, reducing the need for organ transplants and related surgeries.

Surprisingly stem cell therapy has been in routine use since the 1970s. For many years stem cells were obtained from bone marrow and then later from umbilical cords. More recently some dentists are offering their patients the chance to harvest stem cells from the inner nerve chamber of their teeth as another opportunity to save a family's cells for any future medical treatment.

And, while the prime opportunities for dental stem cell preservation are baby teeth, healthy adult teeth are also eligible – including wisdom teeth and teeth extracted for brace treatment.

Take for example people who suffer from type 1 diabetes, the cells of the pancreas that normally produce insulin are destroyed by the patient's own immune system.

New studies indicate that it may be possible to direct the stem cells to form insulin-producing cells that eventually could be used in transplantation therapy for persons with diabetes.

Stored dental cells have already been released for treatment for a patient with type 1 diabetes.

In recent years, human dental cells along with computer designed scaffolds have been trialled to regenerate new bone within skull bone defects using 3-D printers. They've also been used to regenerate peripheral nerves.

More and more families across the world are starting to choose to preserve their stem cells as a potential personalised medical application.

Stem cells continue to be a fascinating concept that still have the ability to make significant changes in the way future healthcare and medicine is delivered.

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