I think it is fair to say that the average person on the sidewalk has never heard of Ernest A. McCulloch or James E. Till. Who are they? Back in the 1960’s it was Canadian research done by McCulloch and Till that led to the unfolding of the magical potential of stem cells.
We all have heard of stem cells but what exactly are they? The short version of a long story is that stems cells are unspecialized cells within the body that have the potential to either divide into more unspecialized stem cells, or under certain physiologic or experimental conditions these unspecialized cells can be stimulated to become specialized tissue or organ cells. It could be that what just minutes ago was an unspecialized stem cell in the marrow of your arm bone might have received a chemical message from your body that you need some new bone marrow. Now that unspecialized cell has divided into a newly specialized bone marrow cell capable of dividing over and over again as new bone marrow for your arm bone. It is kind of like Professor McGonagall from Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is conducting a real life biological Transfiguration Class within your body. What just moments ago was a happy undifferentiated stem cell suddenly becomes bone marrow or nerve tissue or muscle. No wonder people were so excited. You can imagine the potential such cells might have either treating disease or regenerating damaged tissues.
The unspecialized stem cells that develop inside human embryos within the first few days after fertilization are particularly potential filled. Here inside the very early embryo nothing is specialized. There is nothing but a magical mix of cells that are destined to undergo the transfiguration we’ve discussed into brain and muscle, liver and kidney, nerve and tooth! It is these embryonic stem cells of course that generate the heated ethics debates and I certainly don’t intend to enter that fray here.
My primary intent this month is to lift a notice to the existence of new companies marketing dental stem cell banks as a hedge people might use against future tooth loss or illness. What we know is that the dental pulp tissues are a fertile source of stem cells. When baby teeth or wisdom teeth are lost there is a capability to harvest stem cells from the teeth that can be preserved in a stem cell bank just in case you might one day have need for them.
However Dr. Pamela Robey of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research warns that “because no one knows for certain what the full possibilities are for the cells isolated from dental pulp, nor can they accurately predict if or when they’ll be used in clinical settings, patients and professionals need to make informed decisions.” My personal observation is that the only people that are really promoting the promise of dental stem cells are the people employed by one of the dental stem cell banks. Personally, I have sincere doubt that dental stem cells banked today will prove to be a practical solution for the potential woes of tomorrow.
For more information about stem cells visit the National Institutes of Health’s Stem Cell Information page at http://stemcells.nih.gov/info.
Dr. Davis is especially good with kids. And his staff? Helpful, compassionate, and caring. They take care of business for you. Thumbs up. 10 on a scale of 5.