Baby-Tooth Bank Opens in Texas to Preserve Stem Cells

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There's a new high-tech version of the tooth fairy, but some scientists aren't ready to bite.

Austin-based startup company BioEden Inc. has opened the nation's first baby tooth bank, which harvests and freezes stem cells from a tooth's pulp.

The hope is that the cells may someday be useful to treat disease or heal paralyzing spinal cord injuries.

Currently, it's not clear whether such cells could do anything more than help grow the dentin that could be used to reconstruct a broken tooth. Scientists say it will take at least five to 10 years to find out.

But for a $595 processing fee and $89 a year for storage, BioEden will harvest and cryogenically preserve the cells until scientists find a use for them.

"I think these cells have more therapeutic potential than we realize," BioEden spokeswoman Robin Remaley said. "We can't prove it, but we believe it."

BioEden touts its work as an ethical alternative to embryonic stem cells, which are controversial because they are harvested from early embryos, which are destroyed in the process.

Scientists hope to use embryonic stem cells to grow replacement tissues to treat disease. Baby teeth provide so-called "adult" stem cells, which scientists are also exploring for their ability to turn into useful tissues.

BioEden based its business model on a 2003 study by scientists from the National Institutes of Health, who found baby teeth contained stem cells that appeared capable of becoming a variety of cell types with the potential to create dentin, bone and nerve-like cells.

But study co-author Pamela Gehron Robey said it is still "very, very premature" to look at those cells as a potential source for treating neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease.

She said she hesitated to encourage parents to pursue baby-tooth banking.

"If I thought that parents had a real clear understanding of what it is they are storing and what we know these cells can do now, then I would maybe feel better saying, 'Yes, it's worthwhile,'" she said. "I just don't like engendering false hope."

Dr. Robert Lanza, another stem cell expert, had even harsher words. He said the field is developing so rapidly that doctors surely will have more effective ways to harness stem cells in the future.

"Of course, every parent wants to ensure the health of their child, but I think this goes overboard," said Lanza, of the California-based Advanced Cell Technology Inc.

"I would recommend they just put it under their pillow and let the tooth fairy give them a little money," he said.