Glasgow & West Scotland

Commercial harvesting of stem cells under way

Laboratory microscope

A laboratory in Lanarkshire has started harvesting stem cells from children's teeth.

It's hoped the cells can be used in a cure if the children develop a disease later in life.

The American company BioEden will cryogenically store the cells in return for a monthly fee.

Relatively few stem cell therapies are currently in use but hundreds more are being researched.

The company - and its customers - are pinning their hopes on the promise of regenerative medicine.

That aims not just to halt the attack of a disease but repair the damage it has done. Scotland is already a major centre for research in the field.

Tony Veverka, BioEden's group chief executive, said the company is pitching its product squarely at the parents and grandparents of children aged between five and 12, when stem cells are vigorous and teeth get wobbly.

"We harvest the stem cells from teeth - the young teeth of children," he explained.

"So BioEden are effectively the 21st century tooth fairy."

BioEden, which is headquartered in Austin, Texas, says it was the world's first tooth stem cell bank.

It has 20,000 customers in 60 countries worldwide.

Mr Veverka said: "We are a commercial operation and we offer a commercial service.

"We charge a monthly subscription fee to harvest the stem cells and store them.

"Effectively, it costs £12.95 a month."

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Considerable research is being carried out into the use of stem cells

When the tooth fairy calls, BioEden's customers pop a child's milk tooth into - appropriately enough - a little milk to help preserve the cells.

If they are in Europe it arrives at the Motherwell laboratory of BioEden's partner Precious Cells.

There the tooth is cleaned and the stem cells extracted.

Each tooth contains a relative handful of cells but they can be grown in the lab until they number several million.

They then go into cryogenic storage at BioEden's facility in Yorkshire.

Because they have been extracted from teeth, these are mesenchymal stem cells capable of becoming one of a number of cell types: bone, cartilage, muscle or fat.

The Precious Cells lab is already experienced in handling another type: hematopoietic stem cells, which can give rise to all the other types of blood cells.

They are extracted from a baby's umbilical cord.

Database

As well as banking blood cells as a commercial service the company has set up a charity, Precious Cells Miracle, which seeks donations of umbilical cord blood.

The aim is to create a database of hematopoietic stem cell to help fight blood diseases worldwide.

The head of clinical services at Precious Cells, Dr Victoria Robertson, concedes it's still early days for stem cell research but it has huge potential.

"Stem cells are probably the most exciting cell type that there is out there at the moment," she said.

"They have the potential to regenerate tissue, to modulate the immune system, depending on what kind of stem cell they are.

"The possibilities in some ways are endless - but obviously there's still a lot of work to do to find out what all those possibilities might be."

Hundreds of stem cell research projects are under way. Some may never lead to treatments, others may be years away.

But for some ailments stem cell therapy is already a reality. BioEden say there have already been some withdrawals from their bank to treat conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and cleft palate.

And because the stem cells have come from the donor's own body they can't be rejected.

In an ideal world, customers of a stem cell bank would never have cause to make such withdrawals.

Others will hope that, by the time disease does strike, research has produced a therapy capable of being treated by their child's banked cells.

BioEden are in effect inviting parents and grandparents to invest not just in their children's futures, but in the future of science itself.

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