Stem cells, they tell us, will cure incurable diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It’s both a promising and dangerous field, one that may revolutionize medicine or deliver false hope. What is it that makes stem cells such an attractive avenue of medical research?
Most cells in our body have very unique functions, they do very specific things. For example, white blood cells have very specific jobs that revolve around our immune system, like killing virus-infected cells that are threatening to spread. Osteoclasts, which is a type of bone cell, breaks down bone tissue as part of a repair process that keeps us, including our spine, strong and healthy.
There are a lot of very complex organs and tissues in our body, all made up of thousands of little cells that specialize in exactly the thing they need to do to make the system as a whole work. It’s very much akin to your role in your company. You do something specific that is crucial to the process as a whole and the reason you specialize is to ensure that you do that job very well.
There are cells, though, that we can consider ‘universal.’ It’s not that they can perform any task, rather they can develop into specialized cells. These are called stem cells. When a stem cell divides, the new cells can either remain stem cells or they can go into more specialized systems.
To realize the potential of stem cells, imagine being able to regenerate dead tissue in the liver or being able to replace cancerous cells. We could, speculatively, regenerate heart tissue in a lab and bring it to patients in need, without having to wait for a donor. This makes stem cell research and technology very exciting.
What does this have to do with dentistry?
Here’s a crazy fact: there are stem cells in your teeth.
Let’s talk about why this matters and I will be borrowing, for the most part, from two papers:
- La Noce, Paino, Spina, et. al., “Dental Pulp Stem Cells: State of the Art and Suggestions for a True Translation of Research Into Therapy”;
- Ali Abou Neel, Chrzanowsi, Salih, et. al., “Tissue Engineering in Dentistry”.
The Fascinating World of Stem Cells in Dentistry
Dental pulp is a medley of tissue and cells, including nerve endings and blood cells. For context, the reason why you usually don’t feel a cavity until its spread deep into your tooth is because the rest of your body only becomes aware once it begins to affect your nerve endings, which are in the pulp, deep inside your tooth.
As it turns out, there’s more to pulp than we thought. Some of the cells in the pulp can be classified as stem cells and they are known as ‘dental pulp stem cells’ (DPSC).
Why do dental pulp stem cells matter?
Thanks to these stem cells, we might soon have better, less invasive treatments for complications like bone loss and gum disease. Imagine if we could just use stem cells from your teeth to regrow tissue, without having to rely on more traditional grafting procedures. The degree to which we can treat bone tissue loss is also likely to be improved, meaning we can help resolve health issues that previously may have required intense surgery or may not be solvable at all.
What’s neat about DPSC is that they are relatively easier to extract. They can be taken from an extracted tooth, like a wisdom tooth. One of the issues with stem cells is knowing how the host will react to cells that are not native to the body. Researchers have found that same-patient stem cells usually take hold much more effectively because they aren’t a foreign body perceived by our immune system as a threat. If we can take your pulp from a tooth extraction, for example, and use your own stem cells to regenerate bone tissue in the jaw, the chances of success may be significantly higher.
How close we are to making the use of dental pulp stem cells for these kinds of procedures is up for debate, and the research is certainly still clinical, but the results give us reason to dream.
What kind of issues are researchers dealing with as far the use of stem cells?
Stem cells need to be applied in certain ways for the treatment to take hold. Researchers call the devices used to apply stem cells as scaffolds. These can be similar to meshes, and the help distribute and promote the spread and division of stem cells so that they can develop into bone tissue. The material of the scaffold needs to be biocompatible and the device needs to be consistently effective.
We also need to be able to manufacture these scaffolds, which often come in the form of a gel or a paste, in an economical way. If the treatment is not affordable, it doesn’t do anyone any good.
There needs to be more clinical research, as well. Research has been limited, in part, by the expense of meeting regulatory and procedural rules with regards to the manufacturing of these scaffolds and other tools necessary for the testing of stem cells. What this means is that the therapeutic — or, applied — research is still relatively shallow and young, so there’s a long way to go before there’s enough evidence for stem cell treatment to even be considered as a serious option for patients.
The Possibilities are Exciting
Despite there still being a long road ahead as far as actually using stem cells at a dental practice, there are so many things that stem cells may make possible that it really is an exciting world to be in.
Imagine if we could regenerate gum tissue with a simple paste. No scary metal dental tools, no expensive lasers, but a paste that you can spread across your gums to regenerate dead or infected tissue.
Imagine if, rather than having to use a titanium dental implant, we could regenerate the different structures of a tooth from natural bone tissue. Doesn’t that sound simply marvelous?
The potential benefits of dental pulp stem cells may go beyond even this, to helping patients who have suffered major trauma to the face or those suffering from cancer. They present a new opportunity to better treat these health complications. Like with most state-of-the-art research, we can only speculate as to how far-reachingg the consequences of this knowledge and the technologies it makes possible will be.
I am confident, however, that all the work scientists put in today to figure these issues out will pay off in the shape of the hundreds of millions of people who will be able to enjoy better, more effective treatment, improving the standard of living for people across the world.
Finally, to know that so much power, power to help others, is found in something as small as a human tooth makes me so happy and proud that I chose the dentistry profession as my own.