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Why saving your child’s baby teeth could be beneficial in the future

Why saving your child’s baby teeth could be beneficial in the future

While parents have been saving their children’s baby teeth in memory boxes for decades, saving baby teeth for stem cells is a relatively new practice. Not quite as popular (or scientifically backed) as banking baby’s cord blood, storing baby teeth at a tissue bank may come with future benefits. That said, at this point, few experts are completely sold on the practice.  

“The theory behind banking baby teeth is along the same lines of banking placental stem cells and umbilical cord blood — that the cells will be able to be harvested at some point to create other tissue,” says Dr. Amr Moursi, dental surgeon and professor and chair of the NYU Department of Pediatric Dentistry. “However, at this point, there’s not enough research and no FDA approved application — but perhaps 20 years down the road there will be, and your child will benefit.”

Wondering if you should hang on to your child’s baby teeth the modern way? Here, experts weigh in on keeping baby teeth for stem cells. 

What exactly are stem cells?

Stem cells are cells with the potential to renew themselves into different types of cells within the body. In adults, they’re potentially found in tissues, such as bone marrow, fat and blood vessels. Other sources containing stem cells are three- to five-day-old embryos, as well as amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood.  

As the Mayo Clinic explains, stem cells are important, as they can generate healthy cells to replace diseased ones and increase the understanding of how diseases occur. By 2017, stem cell transplants benefited over a million people — including one woman whose body “woke up” two years after a stroke that left her severely impaired and another who became disease-free after battling Burkitt lymphoma.  

As Dr. Giuseppe Intini, dental surgeon and associate professor of periodontics and preventive dentistry at the University of Pittsburgh and a faculty member of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University at Pittsburgh, explains, regardless of their origin, stem cells are either totipotent, pluripotent or multipotent. 

“Totipotent stem cells can generate any type of cell,” Intini says. “Pluripotent cells can generate all cells except the placenta, the amniotic sac and the umbilical cord (meaning a cell from the embryo can become anything from liver to hair cells but cannot fully generate another human being if transplanted in a host womb) and multipotent stem cells have the ability to develop into a limited type of cells. Teeth, it looks like, are multipotent.” 

Can you use baby teeth for stem cells?

According to Intini, research is currently suggesting that there are stem cells in baby teeth — “suggesting” being key. “Right now, it appears — meaning, science is showing some evidence — that there are multipotent stem cells in teeth,” says Intini. “Keep in mind, though, this is all preclinical, and research has been done mostly with mice and rats. To really say teeth can produce stem cells that can be used for clinical application, we need clinical trials and right now there are very few.” 

It’s worth noting, though, that even though the clinical trials on stem cells in baby teeth are scant, they’re not altogether nonexistent. Research from a 2018 study suggests that “implantation of tooth stem cells can provide partial recovery of teeth injured by trauma.” Another found a connection between dental pulp stem cells and the treatment of mild to moderate knee osteoarthritis.

Should you keep baby teeth for stem cells?

With research being minimal at this point, and the high cost of properly storing teeth (more on that in a bit), neither Intini nor Moursi are completely sold on storing baby teeth at a tooth bank for stem cells.  

“Right now, it seems that the stem cells in teeth can help repair teeth,” explains Moursi. “Frankly, dental regeneration [at the dentist’s office] is cheaper. If the research suggested stem cells in teeth could repair another ogan, like the heart or liver, that would be a different story. That said, saving baby teeth at a tissue bank — if you have the money — is an insurance policy of sorts and there’s no harm in doing so.”    

How do you save baby teeth?

The old-fashioned way of saving baby teeth is to simply put them in a box (and, real talk, perhaps years later wonder why you kept them in the first place). But if you’re looking to save baby teeth for stem cells, the process is much different. (And, no, you can’t retrieve cells from teeth that have previously fallen out.)

Similar to the process of saving cord blood, baby teeth are saved in a kit that was previously purchased. “We send the kit to the client’s dentist and advise our clients to make an appointment with the dentist to have the tooth extracted when it’s a little loose,” says Art Greco, founder and CEO of the tooth tissue bank, StemSave. “Waiting for baby teeth to fall out on their own significantly reduces the chances of recovering healthy stem cells.” The likely reason being, Greco explains, that the blood supply to the pulp (where the stem cells reside) was terminated prior to the tooth falling out, “thereby rendering the cells dead.” 

After the tooth is extracted, the dentist places it in a kit designed to keep the cells alive during transportation. “We then arrange to have the kit picked up at the dentist’s office and overnighted to our lab for processing,” Greco says.  

How much does it cost to store baby teeth?

Prices will vary at different banks, but there’s always an initial fee, as well as a monthly (or yearly) payment. At StemSave, there’s an initial recovery and processing fee of $630, as well as an annual storage fee of $120. Typically, payments are spread out in chunks, with StemSave offering three, six or 12 monthly payments. 

“The cost is per specimen,” Greco says. “If a family sends us a kit with teeth in January and another kit in August, that would be considered two specimens and would incur two storage fees. However, if the family sends us a kit with more than one tooth — we process all the teeth in the kit and it is considered one specimen. We also have a number of payment options designed to accommodate families with a broad range of financial means.”

Also, it should be noted that, generally, insurance doesn’t pay for the cost of extracting a tooth at the dentist’s office solely for the purpose of preserving stem cells. “Insurance may cover the cost of the extraction if it is required for orthodontic reasons and it is a covered procedure,” Greco says. “However, in cases where the extraction is elective, insurance typically doesn’t cover it.”

Ultimately, keeping baby teeth in a bank is a personal — and financial — choice. Currently, there doesn’t appear to be tons of clinical evidence suggesting the stem cells found in teeth can do more than help other teeth, but with science constantly evolving, there’s no harm in doing so, if you have the means.