WASHINGTON – When he was a child, biochemist Jonathan P. Schuermann loved to ride roller coasters. But before every ride, he had to give his dentures to his father, who feared they would fall out when Schuermann screamed.
Afflicted with a rare genetic disorder, ectodermal dysplasia, which affects teeth, skin, hair and nails, Schuermann, 27, had only four pointed teeth and sparse hair at age 3, when he got his first set of dentures after his natural teeth were removed.
Although he got dental implants at age 12 and has a seemingly perfect smile, now, as then, harder foods are a problem “I could not eat peanuts,” said Schuermann, of San Antonio.
He is excited about a scientific discovery announced Thursday – that adult stem cells harvested from baby or wisdom teeth may allow him and others to grow new teeth naturally.
Pamela Gehron Robey, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research's chief of craniofacial and skeletal diseases branch, said the institute discovered the potential of cells from deciduous, or baby teeth, and third molars to replace missing teeth.
Robey said SHED, which stands for “stem cells from human exfoliated deciduous teeth,” contains rich supplies of stem cells that can develop into a variety of cell types, including tooth-generating cells.
Scientists transplanted SHED into mice and found that it induced the formation of bone and dentin, the hard substance under tooth enamel and surrounding the pulp.
Institute scientists also isolated stem cells from wisdom teeth's periodontal ligament, the net-like tendon that holds teeth in sockets, which regenerated cementum, a specialized bony substance covering the tooth root, she said.
The discovery holds great promise for restoring tissues destroyed by gum diseases such as gingivitis and periodontitis, Robey said.
Dental implants were a breakthrough, she said, but researchers want “functional, natural teeth.”
Robey said the process is practical. “Baby teeth are shed naturally, and wisdom teeth do not really participate in grinding food,” she said.
She said scientists envision a “tooth stockpile,” in which people could save their own baby or wisdom teeth for a more compatible cell-type match, but transplants are another possibility.
As part of the study, she said scientists “bribed” children to turn over their baby teeth when they fell out.
Children normally develop 20 deciduous teeth. Wisdom teeth appear during late adolescent or early adult years.
“Oral, dental and craniofacial diseases aren't just dental problems,” said Lawrence Tabak, director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. “They affect our ability to eat, communicate and thrive in society.”
He urged the public and the scientific community to support stem cell research to treat dental diseases. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” Tabak said.
Robey said several companies have obtained licenses to conduct clinical trials. “It is really hard to predict the outcome, but I see this coming in five to 10 years,” she said.
Schuermann, who was the first person to receive dental implants in a National Institutes of Health clinical trial, would be willing to participate in a tooth-growing trial and replace his sometimes uncomfortable titanium implants. “I want to know – how does it feel, grinding or chewing food?” he said.