When George W. Bush was president he placed severe restrictions on using government funding for research on embryonic stem cells. Regardless of one’s opinion on the moral issues surrounding embryonic stem cells, this policy stance and the limelight it placed on the term “stem cell” did the United States a huge disservice by mis-educating the public at large on what a stem cell actually is. Because at the time nearly all research being done in the stem cell space was with embryonic stem cells, the media and the public at large began associating the words “stem cell” exclusively with embryos. This is akin to saying that “because football fields are made with grass, the only place you will find grass is on a football field”. Obviously, it’s ridiculous. What’s worse, it put a bad taste in many people’s mouths about stem cells generally, when they are actually one of the most promising avenues for developing treatments and cures for nearly all diseases. What then, is a stem cell?
A stem cell is essentially a manufacturing facility whose product is a variety of different types of cells. Hundreds of millions of stem cells in your body are making new blood cells, new lung cells, new brain cells, and every other type of cell in your body all day long. At a high level, there are two types of stem cells:
1) Embryonic stem cells
2) Adult stem cells
Embryonic stem cells are capable of turning into every type of cell in the body. This makes sense, because embryos turn into humans. Adult stem cells on the other hand are more limited in the variety of cells they can manufacture. Scientists started researching embryonic stem cells first because it was intuitive to them that being able to differentiate into any cell type (rather than a specific list of cell types) should make them more useful in treatments. What they have learned in the past 10 years, however, is that the opposite is true. Because embryonic stem cells can turn into anything, they are hard to control. It’s like putting rocket fuel into a car, you simply can’t use that much power. Further, not being able to control stem cells is very dangerous because out-of-control cell replication is…you guessed it…the textbook definition of cancer. Adult stem cells are much easier to control, and scientists are making advances on an almost daily basis with respect to their ability to coax adult stem cells into manufacturing a specific desired cell type.
There are two primary types of adult stem cells:
1) Hematopoietic stem cells
2) Mesenchymal stem cells
Hematopoietic stem cells are blood stem cells. They are responsible for differentiating into any other type of blood cell (white, red, dendritic, etc). Mesenchymal stem cells are responsible for replenishing any type of soft or hard tissue in the body (cartilage, bone, muscle, etc).
Stem cell’s ability to turn into numerous types of other cells make them an obvious place for scientists to look for treatments and cures. When we get cancer, or when we injure ourselves playing sports, at a structural level what has happened is that the cells in that location of our body are either a) damaged, or b) are replicating improperly. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just drop some adult stem cells in there and have them manufacture whatever cell type was needed to fix the problem? Unfortunately we’re not quite there yet, but we are moving along at a faster pace than ever before. If you go to www.clinicaltrials.gov (link provided below) and type in “Adult stem cell” you will see that there are more than 4,427 studies listed (also note that if you type in “embryonic stem cell” there are only 34). These studies represent billions of dollars of investment and tens of thousands of researchers all over the world trying to figure out how to make use of these incredibly powerful manufacturing facilities. You may be wondering, is there anything we can use stem cells for today?
The answer is yes…but there are not nearly as many uses today as there are potential uses being researched. Today the most common way in which adult stem cells are used is to treat blood and immune system diseases like Leukemia, and to help people rebuild their immune systems after chemotherapy has torn them down. There are around 50,000 treatments every year worldwide, and almost all of them are using blood stem cells. Blood stem cells can be found in bone marrow, and because we’ve understood many of the qualities of bone marrow for a while now (and have set up infrastructure for collecting bone marrow from donors), much more research has been conducted into uses for blood stem cells than has been conducted using mesenchymal stem cells. However, interest in mesenchymal stem has been experiencing exponential growth, literally. In 2000, there were no studies looking into mesenchymal stem cells. Between 2001 and 2009 there were only 28. Currently, there are over 400!
Because of the vast promise of stem cell related treatments, parents worldwide have started to store their children’s stem cells when they are born. When a child is born, the blood from the umbilical cord contains blood stem cells, and the cord tissue itself contains mesenchymal stem cells. By cryogenically freezing these stem cells at birth, parents insure that their children will have access to these cells if they ever need them for treatments in the future. An added benefit of storing them when a child is born is that the cells are as healthy as they will ever be, and they don’t age in cryogenic stasis. If the child grows up and develops cancer as an old man, or if he needs a heart transplant and wants to use his own stem cells to grow tissue around a 3d printed heart, he will have his own uncorrupted pre-disease state cells. While it is doubtful that stem cells from a 20 year old body are much less valuable than stem cells from a 10 year old body, what we do know is that stem cells collected when the body is in a pre-disease state, are much more useful than stem cells collected after the body has already become sick.
Storing children’s stem cells at birth, also known as cord blood and tissue banking, is a multi-billion dollar business worldwide. In the United States, about 4% of parents store their child’s cord blood today, and the number is growing quickly. But what about all of the parents who missed the chance to store their child’s cord blood and cord tissue? Or, what about people that want to store their own stem cells just in case. Have they missed their chance?
Luckily, thanks to companies like Vault Stem Cell, the answer is no. The same exact type of stem cell that is found inside of cord tissue is also found inside of dental pulp! Isn’t that crazy? Your teeth – so long as they are alive and in your head – have dental pulp, and within that dental pulp are truckloads of mesenchymal stem cells. Even baby teeth have stem cells, but you have to capture them before the tooth falls out because by the time a tooth falls out it is unlikely to have any dental pulp remaining.
Vault Stem Cell works with oral surgeons (the primary extractors of wisdom teeth, 10 million of which are removed from US citizens annually), and helps them offer any patient who is having a healthy tooth extracted a second chance to collect their stem cells. So, for anyone who still has healthy teeth, the answer to our question is yes! Stem cells in your teeth may very well save your life someday.
By Ben Buchanan