One of the many choices parents have to make before their baby arrives is whether or not to bank their baby's cord blood. Now there might be a more affordable and less time-sensitive option: banking your baby's teeth.
Most parents know stem cells found in cord blood can be used to treat more than 80 types of diseases, including cancers, genetic diseases and blood disorders. In theory, these stem cells have the ability to regenerate into more stem cells or into specialized cells like nerve or blood cells, which carry out a specific task. While this seems like a medical holy grail (it is and it's not, and we'll get to that!), many parents choose to forgo the procedure because of its processing and storage costs.
Now they might have another option.
In recent years companies offering dental stem cell banking have popped up. As it turns out, your child's baby teeth also contain stem cells, which can be banked and retrieved for later stem cell extraction. But is the procedure worth it?
Let's take a closer look at what's known so far:
The Effectiveness of Dental Stem Cells Remains Unproven
One big challenge is that there is no definitive proof that dental stem cells can be universally applied throughout the body. According to Dr. Pamela Robey of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the only thing that dental stem cells are proven to recreate is dentin and pulp. Other research has also shown that they can be effective in brain and retinal applications. The research looks promising, but researchers (being researchers) are still hesitant to claim universal effectiveness.
That Being Said, the Usefulness of Cord Blood Stem Cells Is Also Not Guaranteed
While stem cell treatments are effective in many cases, there are also situations where they aren't. Tracey and Victor Dones found this out when their son was diagnosed with osteopetrosis, a genetic defect that causes rapid increases in bone density. His cord blood stem cells, which the parents had banked at his birth, contained the same defect, rendering it an unsuitable treatment option. That, as well as improper storage and loss of efficacy are a small risk that parents undergo when signing up for the procedure.
Cord Blood Stem Cells Can Be Obtained From a Bank
There are public stem cell banks where people can donate their cord blood, and those in need can obtain them if a match is found. These banks are financed by people obtaining the stem cells for their use, and each "withdrawal" can cost an average of $20,000 per sample. If the stem cells are being used as part of an accepted medical procedure, this cost is often covered by insurance.
But Even With a Perfect Match, There Is a Chance of Rejection
When Alison Bassetto's husband was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2011, he was fortunate enough to find an exact stem cell match among his six siblings (the chance of two siblings being a perfect match is one in four), but unfortunately, he developed graft-versus-host disease, and passed away when his brother's donated stem cells attacked his own cells.
Dental Stem Cells Can Be Harvested Later in Life
So it probably seems as though banking your baby's cord blood stem cells are still the best way to go. Despite the small chance of unsuitability, they provided the safest treatment option and are a guaranteed match. But that doesn't eliminate the cost issue. Fortunately, for those parents who cannot afford the procedure, dental stem cells can also be harvested from wisdom teeth, making them available later in life, which is what Bassetto did for her son after her husband passed away.
Cost Comparison: Cord Blood vs. Dental Stem Cell Storage
Cord blood storage pricing varies by provider. AlphaCord, a newborn stem cell banking company founded in 2002, currently charges more than $1,600 for initial processing and $99 per month for storage. Alternatively, parents can pay $3,495 for the first 18 years of storage, but given the late-breaking research that stem cells can be used to treat Alzheimer's and other neuro-degenerative diseases this pricing structure may have to change to accommodate lifetime storage.
Dental stem cell storage varies as well, but initial processing runs between $475 and $1,749, and annual storage costs are around $120 per year.
The verdict on this can be a bit complicated, tooth be told.
If your child is biracial or belongs to a minority group and you didn’t bank their cord blood, then banking their baby teeth makes sense. People of color tend to be underrepresented in public banks both due to lower participation rates and lower overall population. Mixed-race patients also have a harder time finding a match.
For the rest of the population, banking teeth (or cord blood) may not be as pressing as the companies selling the service make it seem: Research released by the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation found that only .04 percent of all banked cord blood is used by the actual person, and recommends public storage (donation) over private storage. For patients, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 66 to 97 percent of people would be able to find a suitable donor depending on their ethnic background among donated umbilical cord-blood units or among bone marrow donors.
But if the topic keeps you up at night, then banking dental stem cells can be a great option. It’s not as time sensitive (you can bank healthy wisdom teeth as well), and according to some experts the application potential is promising and may even treat more complex disorders in the future like multiple sclerosis (MS) and traumatic brain injury.