When Karen Davis attended a presentation at a dental conference in 2013, she unexpectedly discovered a service that could help her daughter, Madeline: storing stem cells derived from her teeth that potentially could be used in the future to treat her Crohn's disease.
"Even though this isn't a viable option today, I know how rapidly things can change."
Throughout high school, Madeline suffered from the painful autoimmune disorder, which wreaks havoc on the gastrointestinal system and can lead to life-threatening complications.
"I leave no stone unturned when it comes to medical care and this resonated with me," says Davis, a Dallas-based dental hygienist who was encouraged by advances in stem cell research. Later that year, when Madeline got her wisdom teeth extracted, Davis shipped them off to the Store-A-Tooth company in Massachusetts, where they will be kept frozen until needed. "Even though this isn't a viable option today, I know how rapidly things can change," says Davis. "To me, this was a worthwhile investment—I didn't want to miss out on an opportunity that would provide a pathway to a cure."
Karen Davis pictured with her daughter Madeline.
(Courtesy of Karen Davis)
The process itself was straightforward. Madeline's newly extracted wisdom teeth--baby teeth can be saved, too—were bathed in a special solution, loaded into a Styrofoam container lined with cold packs and sent to the stem cell company. There, a team harvested the dental stem cells from the pulp, then grew them in culture and cryogenically preserved them. Store-A-Tooth charges $1500-1749 for tooth collection and $120 per year for storage, while other dental pulp stem cell tissue banks cost $500-$600 upfront and in the $120 range annually for storage.
The rationale here is that if you missed out on banking your baby's umbilical cord blood, this gives you another chance to harvest their stem cells. "If their child later develops an illness that could be managed or even cured with stem cell therapy, this is an insurance policy," says Amr Moursi, DDS, PhD, chair of the department of pediatric dentistry at New York University College of Dentistry.
But is there a genuine potential here for some effective treatments in the relatively near future—or is this just another trendy fad? Scientific opinion is decidedly mixed. Stem cells have been heralded as the next frontier in medicine because of their versatility: with a little chemical coaxing, they can be transformed into different cell types, such as heart, blood or brain cells, to create tissue that can mend damaged body parts. Because they're taken from your own body, there's little chance of rejection, which means patients don't have to take strong antirejection drugs that can have all sorts of unpleasant side effects for the rest of their lives.
However, while stem cells are immature cells found in different tissues, ranging from abdominal fat to bone marrow, there is a vast difference between the stem cells found in cord blood and in teeth. Cord blood, which is culled from the umbilical cord when a baby is born, contains what are called hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), which can mature into other blood cells. These type of stem cells have already been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat patients—especially children--with blood cancers, such as leukemias and lymphomas, and certain blood disorders like sickle cell anemia.
In contrast, stem cells in teeth are called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which are found in dental pulp, the tissue in the center of the tooth that's filled with nerves and blood vessels. MSCs are adult stem cells normally found in the bone marrow that can transform into bone, fat, and cartilage cells, and also aid in the formation of blood stem cells.
"Right now we just don't have rigorous evidence that they can be used in that fashion and have real benefit."
Small studies on lab animals suggest that MSCs secrete growth factors—hormonal steroids or proteins—that can nurture ailing cells, act as powerful anti-inflammatory agents that could tame autoimmune disorders like the one that plagues Karen Davis's daughter, and may even generate new nerve and muscle tissue. Preliminary research suggests they potentially could treat medical conditions as varied as heart disease, spinal cord injury and type 1 diabetes by generating new cells, which can replace damaged or dead cells.
But this is all very early research and there's a vast difference between how cells behave in the tightly controlled environment of a lab versus the real world in a diverse population of human patients. "Right now we just don't have rigorous evidence that they can be used in that fashion and have real benefit," says Pamela G. Robey, PhD, chief of the skeletal biology section at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research at the National Institutes of Health.
Robey should know—she headed the research team that discovered stem cells in human baby teeth and in wisdom teeth more than fifteen years ago. She believes prospects are better using these stem cells for tooth repair: research suggests they may be able to fix cracked teeth, repair bone defects caused by gum disease, or in root canal therapy, where they can be used to replace infected tissue with regenerated healthy pulp.
In the meantime, though, there are no clinical applications for MSCs. "These tooth banking companies aren't doing their own research," says Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota who monitors stem cell clinics. "They cobble together reports of early research in humans or from animal studies in an effort to provide a narrative to make it seem like it is evidence based."
Still, in all fairness, tooth banking companies aren't making the kind of extravagant claims made by stem cell clinics, which operate in a gray area of the law and purport to treat everything from chronic lung disease to Alzheimer's. "We don't know when therapies will be available using these cells because the pace of research is hard to predict," says Peter Verlander, PhD, a molecular geneticist and chief scientific officer of Provia Laboratories, the parent company of Store-A-Tooth. "But for parents who regretted not banking their child's cord blood, especially if they later develop a disease like diabetes, this is another opportunity."
But the jury is still out if this is truly a good investment. Moursi, a national spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry who fields queries about this practice from a dozen or so families a year, concludes: "If you could afford it, and know the risks, benefits and current limitations, then it is something to consider."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”