05/14/2010 09:24 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mouth Health: Stem Cells in Your Teeth

There are a few areas I stay away from when it comes to "party talk." Politics, of course, is a biggie. I tend to avoid religion as well. And, of course, I'm not one to really stand and shout about the touchy topics of the day, like abortion or gun control or anything like that.

It's not that I don't have opinions on these things, it's just that they are probably best kept to myself. It's not really worth an argument, and I know I'm not changing anyone's mind anyway (has anyone's mind ever changed regarding a social argument on a hot topic? I've never heard at a party "you know Stan, you're right about that. I was wrong all along ... whaddaya know?"

But I will dive into the Stem Cell debate. I'm actually a little excited about it, to be honest. But before you reply with fire in your words, hear me out: I'm not talking about embryonic stem cell research or the like. I won't touch that one. In fact, what I'm excited about might actually help that debate.

But I am talking about recent findings that stem cells are alive and well, happily residing in the pulp of your teeth (the pulp is the living tissue residing in the center of each tooth. C'mon, you already knew your teeth were not hard enamel all the way through, right? In fact, there are all sorts on neat things in there! But let's get back to Stem Cells ...)

This is exciting news for a few reasons. The first reason is that not only are there stem cells in your teeth, it's that they are mesenchymal stem cells. That's one of the type of stem cells that can produce other cell types. Now, they aren't capable of producing all cell types (like Embryonic stem cells are said to), but it's nonetheless very welcome news. That's because most adult stem cells are tissue-specific -- but these mesenchymal stem cells are a little more diverse. They can produce Cardio Myocyte cells (which can repair damaged cardiac tissue); Neuronal cells, which generates nerve and brain tissue; Myocyte cells for muscle repair; Osteocyte and Chondrocyte cells for bone and cartilage respectively; Adipocytes for fat; and (of course) the regeneration of oral bone and tissue.

The research is still very early (being only a few years old), but this is good reason to get excited. See, Embryonic research is in the news because those stem cells can produce any other cell. So to find a solid source of mesenchymal stem cells is exciting. Finally, it seems like a very viable alternative to embryonic research might be within reach. Because this has come to light in only the past few years, who knows what's next? That should be welcome news, regardless of which side of the debate you find yourself on.

But here's another good reason to get excited: baby teeth are especially rich with stem cells. While stem cells have been found in adult wisdom teeth, it's the deciduous (baby) teeth that command the focus of most of the research. Now, why is this exciting? Because baby teeth fall out naturally, making them an ideal (and a very simple / ethical) source for mesenchymal stem cells. Think about it - what happens now with baby teeth? They get put under the pillow, in hopes the tooth fairy will come. Then, maybe one gets saved by mom, and that's that. The rest get likely thrown away (now that I think about it, I find that odd. But I know my parents didn't save all of my baby teeth... and I don't have them. They must have been thrown away. I have to say, as a dentist, it bothers me just a bit that my teeth made it to a landfill somewhere).

Anyway, it's those thrown away teeth that will likely change stem cell research forever. First of all, like we said, they are easy (and inexpensive) to obtain. Plus, there's no ethical dilemma. And they are easy to transport and handle, making saving and storing them long term very viable. Right now, saving/storing them can be done for 10 years -- beyond that, we just don't know how useful the cells will be. But I'm sure we'll find out. Regardless, the outlook here is very good.

Right now, there are companies specializing in storing baby teeth for future use. I would suggest if any of this interests you that you search online for such -- there is no shortage of information out there. And who knows, maybe the tooth fairy takes a little detour!

Until next time, keep smiling.