Could Baby Teeth Stem Cells Save Your Child?

A more reasonable approach, Civin said, is for parents to donate their child's umbilical cord to a public bank. Like a bone marrow registry, the bank keeps a database of the cells that are available and offers them to patients in need. Today, he said, most of the lifesaving procedures conducted with umbilical cord stem cells use cells that come from a public bank.

"These will be used by somebody who needs it, likely for cancer, or maybe a genetic disease," Civin said. "That I would recommend, if that's available at the hospital at which the baby is born. It's sort of an altruistic gift to society."

But Civin said since umbilical cord stem cells are seeing actual therapeutic use, "it's not as big a leap as baby teeth. ... The tooth cells may never be used."

Other stem cell experts agreed that baby teeth stem calls are not ready for widespread banking.

"The benefits are entirely speculative," said Jonathan Moreno, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "I would like to see an itemized bill that accounts for the ... charges. After the cells are harvested and treated, it's just a matter of holding them in a refrigerator, so the only real cost is the electricity."

"This is ridiculous, modern snake oil," agreed Sean Morrison, associate professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. "The difference relative to cord blood is that cells from baby teeth have never been used clinically to treat anything, and are unlikely to ever be used."

Still, studies on the potential of these cells are ongoing. The National Institutes of Health has, in past research, cited the potential of the cells to yield dentin and bone -- which means that future applications could include the repair of damaged teeth and bones.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are also working to identify, characterize and come up with applications for the cells contained within human dental pulp.

When Marketing Comes Before the Science

Sadler said his clinics are planning to send information out to parents later this week about the banking option, and pamphlets outlining the procedure and its costs are available in the waiting areas of the offices.

"All of this is dependent upon the patient's or the patient's parent's choice," he said. "We're taking the role of exposing the patient to this, and if they choose to do this, they do it."

Still, Tim McCaffrey, vice chairman of biochemistry and molecular biology at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said the marketing of this option is far too early.

"I'll be conservative and say that this is very highly speculative, because most people would look at this and call it snake oil," McCaffrey said in an e-mailed correspondence. "The part that annoys me is that it preys on parents' fear of something dreadful happening to their child, and I will guarantee you that the company will not produce data on the viability or potency of the 'stem cells' that they 'isolate' and store.

"There is no guarantee that this would work in 10 years when, heaven forbid, your child needs it. Do they give a money-back guarantee?"

Cathy Becker contributed to this report.

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