Steamboat Springs Some Steamboat Springs residents are forgoing the Tooth Fairy, hoping their teeth wind up being worth a lot more than a quarter.
Steamboat Springs oral surgeon Dr. John Lupori offers patients the chance to store the stem cells in the teeth he extracts. Lupori partners with StemSave, a New York-based company that freezes and stores stem cells found in the pulp at the base of teeth. Science is moving fast, those involved said, and the cells might someday save the patient's life.
"Potentially, they're incredibly miraculous," said Dr. Bob Pensack, who had his daughter, Miriam, save her cells. "They've already been miraculous in the lab."
Stem cells exist throughout the body and differentiate into organs and tissue. Stem cells that could be used to grow new organs, for example, are the type that haven't differentiated. Dental stem cells fall into this category, StemSave CEO Art Greco said.
"They are what is called very plastic, which means they can become different kinds of tissue," Greco said. "That's what makes them very valuable."
The possibilities of dental stem cells still aren't proven, Lupori said. But he, Pensack and StemSave have high hopes.
"In the not-too-distant future, you'll be able to re-create the bone, and you can re-create it in the shape of that person's own bone using 3D
printers," Greco said. "The person has his own bone, and it's bone that's from earlier in his life. It's younger bone that will last a lifetime."
Miriam Pensack went to Alpine Oral and Facial Surgery to have her wisdom teeth pulled in November. When she awoke, she learned that her father had chosen to have her stem cells saved.
When Lupori removed Miriam's teeth, he checked to make sure the pulp was there and put them into a preserving solution. The office shipped the teeth to New York. StemSave's laboratory workers tested them for viable stem cells and stored Miriam's tissue.
Pensack, a former emergency room doctor who now is a psychiatrist, didn't hesitate when he learned he could have Miriam's cells saved. He has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the muscle of the heart is abnormal without an apparent cause. It's genetic.
If stem cell research advances to the state he thinks it will, people could have diseased heart tissue
replaced with healthy tissue grown from their own cells.
One of the benefits of growing a new organ from your own stem cells is that you don't have any risk of the body rejecting it, Pensack said. Pensack underwent a heart transplant because of his condition. He takes two drugs to keep his immune system from rejecting the organ. He takes 13 drugs to treat the side effects of those two.
"You take them forever, and they're all like chemotherapy," Pensack said. "They're poisonous to other organs."
Miriam said her family frequently discussed the potential of stem cells. She's glad hers are on ice because they could help her deal with any medical issue she encounters.
"Hopefully, should complications come up in my health, that is a pretty firm pillar to lean on," Miriam Pensack said.
StemSave stores the cells in a system that Greco called "robust" and "stable." Once the cells reach New York, they're kept frozen with liquid nitrogen. That means the storage isn't dependent on electricity, he said.
"The system is highly redundant," Greco said.
People interested in having their cells stored can deal directly with StemSave. Lupori only provides the service. As of now, he said, he ships teeth that are removed only as part of a dental procedure. He doesn't extract teeth for stem cell purposes, he said. Wisdom and baby teeth provide the best opportunity for stem cell harvesting, Lupori said, but StemSave also preserves teeth removed later in life.
"It's new, and you can't really speculate too much on it," Lupori said. "I will emphasize that the implications for extraction remain the same, we just preserve it."
StemSave charges people an initial fee and yearly storage costs to keep those cells ready for medical use. The initial processing is $590, and preservation costs $100 a year. StemSave offers financing, Greco said.
Embryonic is embryonic
Dental stem cells have nothing to do with the controversial embryonic variety, each party stressed. Those cells, as their name indicates, come from an embryo. They're controversial in part because the embryo is destroyed when the cells are removed.
Dental stem cells already exist in the body.
"The whole thing has nothing to do with embryonic," said Amy Peck, a nurse at Lupori's practice. "It's just tissue. You're banking on the future; you can either save it or throw it away."
Greco said the science moved exponentially, not linearly.
"We don't see this as 10, 15, 20 years away," he said. "We see this as just on the horizon. The amount of money being poured into regenerative medicine is mindboggling."
Dentists now are on the front lines of that, StemSave spokeswoman Taryn Langer said.
"It's changing the way I think people are going to look at a trip to the dentist," she said. "Maybe there's not that same trepidation with having your wisdom teeth pulled when you think of the possibilities that are inside those wisdom teeth."