Researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas are on the cuspid of making scientific history.
James Mah and Karl Kingsley, along with a handful of students, developed a method for extracting large numbers of stem cells from wisdom teeth.
Found in nearly any living tissue, stem cells can even be squeezed out of tissues of the deceased, according to Mah, director of UNLV’s advanced education program in orthodontics, doctor of dental surgery, and dental researcher.
But there’s a catch: “The biggest challenges with stem cells are gathering enough of them to work with and keeping them viable until they are needed,” he said.
In collaboration with UNLV biomedical sciences professor Kingsley, the team cut their teeth on, well, teeth, managing to quadruple the number of harvested stem cells compared to traditional methods (i.e. marrow, blood).
A regular practice among U.S. patients, millions of people have their wisdom teeth, or third molars, removed.
“Extracting teeth is relatively common among patients undergoing orthodontic treatments,” Kingsley said. “And the majority of those teeth are healthy, containing viable tooth root pulp that offers opportunities for reproducing cells that have been damaged or destroyed by injuries or disease.”
Tooth root pulp—which sounds like a derivative of the bone marrow food craze (would you like that roasted or grilled?)—contains two types of “prized” stem cells: pluripotent and multipotent.
“Initially, the answer seemed simple: crack the tooth in half like a nut and remove the pulp,” Mah said.
Not so fast: By their very nature, our pearly whites grow into non-uniform shapes with irregular surfaces; prying out stem cells would require drilling into, removing the top of, or shattering the tooth—all of which can lead to a low recovery rate.
Former dental student Happy Ghag came to the rescue, developing an instrument the researchers called “Tooth Cracker 5000,” which scores the tooth, allowing for a clean break—as if you’re custom-cutting glass. The result, according to UNLV: “a perfectly halved tooth, with immediate access to undamaged and uncontaminated root pulp.”
The team reported 100 percent success after testing the prototype on 25 teeth.
Progress continued when Mah, Kingsley, and Co. determined that 80 percent of their extracted cells remained viable—compared to an average pulp recovery rate of about 20 percent.
“Saying the test results were promising is a gross understatement,” Mah said. “We realized we’d invented an extraction process that produced four times the recovery success rate for viable stem cells. The potential application is enormous.”
The number of pluripotent stem cells found in teeth decrease dramatically after adults reach age 30. But preservation could be as easy as donating blood: If people have their wisdom teeth removed or are getting a root canal, valuable cells could be harvested at the time, and stored cryogenically for later use.
Future applications of the teeth tech include therapies for cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, the University boasted.
“The next challenge,” Kingsley explained, “is reliably collecting the stem cells early enough and storing them successfully so they can be used when needed.”