The Best Sources Of Stem Cells Explained: Cord Blood, Bone Marrow, and Teeth
Stem cell research is one of the most exciting and rapidly advancing areas of contemporary medicine.
A little over fifty years ago there wasn’t even proof they existed; today they’re believed to hold the key to treating a number of complex conditions and diseases, many of which are currently considered to be permanent or incurable.
The industry has certainly come along way, but we’re still in the early stages of its growth. In fact, the current landscape of stem cell research can be comparable to the early days of electricity – it’s clear that what we’ve discovered is incredibly valuable, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to best use it.
As we journey towards the point where stem cell treatments have fully matured, we’re passing through a number of stages, each characterised by the level of knowledge and technology available at that time.
These stages take us from the very first stem cell treatments using umbilical cord blood, through the hugely controversial use of embryonic stem cells, and into the proliferation of bone marrow transplants and the revolutionary developments in teeth stem cells.
Many of these treatments are still in use today, and for good reason. Each have their own unique advantages and benefits in treating certain conditions and diseases. However, just like with anything, each also comes with its own downsides.
To get a better idea of the unique advantages and disadvantages of the three main sources of stem cells used today—bone marrow, cord blood, and teeth—we’re going to examine each in relation to the following factors:
Ease of extraction and cost – How much equipment, time, and effort is involved in harvesting? And what does this mean for the patient?
Concentration of stem cells – Stem cells need to be found in very high concentrations to be viable for treatment. And the higher the concentration, the less volume is required.
Type of stem cells – There are several types of stem cells, those which are specialised (e.g. hematopoietic or blood cells) and those which are unspecialised. Unspecialised cells are known as pluripotent cells, and have the unique capabilities to differentiate into any other cell type in the body.
Age and damage – As pollution and ageing damages stem cells, they are better harvested when the donor is young.
Potential for rejection – Depending on whether the stem cells are from a relative, match donor, or other source, and also in which method they are used, they may trigger a rejection response from the immune system.
Precious Stem Cells From Birth: Umbilical Cord Blood
Once discarded as human waste, cord blood is one of the most useful sources of stem cells we know of.
It’s been used for nearly twenty years in treating children with blood disease, and has increasingly become more common in adult treatments.
Much like bone marrow, cord blood is a rich source of hematopoietc (blood) stem cells, but unlike those in bone marrow, those in cord blood are relatively easy to collect.
They can be extracted immediately after birth, with no harm or risk to the mother or baby—making it not only a non-invasive and low cost source of stem cells, but an incredibly healthy source too, due to minimal damage from pollution and ageing.
Other benefits including that cord blood stem cells can be stored for long periods until they are needed, and the fact that they’re less likely to cause immune rejection or other complications, are somewhat overshadowed by its one major limitation—the volume collected is fixed and relatively small. And as stem cells in cord blood aren’t found in as high concentrations as in bone marrow, one adult would need at least two units of cord blood to be treated—making it a precious and pricey resource.
Long Considered The Greatest Source Of Stem Cells: Bone Marrow
In the past, whenever patients needed a stem cell transplant, if they didn’t have access to umbilical cord blood stem cells, they received a bone marrow transplant.
The process begins with finding a suitable match. If stem cells from immediate family aren’t available, doctors look to donations of volunteers. This can make the serious condition graft-versus-host disease (GVHD)—when the transplanted cells attack your own cells—more likely to occur.
In terms of extraction, the number of assessments before the procedure, including blood tests, medical history, etc., and the length of the procedure itself, make extracting stem cells from bone marrow an expensive process. And then there is of course the case of having several large needles perforating your hip bone to remove around one or two litres of bone marrow.
The advantages no doubt outweigh the downsides, but factors such as that the majority of stem cells in bone marrow are hamatopoietic cells which make blood, and that bone marrow is often extracted from older patients whose stem cells are inevitably more damaged, do pose limitations to its treatment applications.
The Future Of Stem Cell Banking and Therapy: Teeth
The latest discovery of the three, teeth stem cells are already proving their worth alongside the other two more established sources.
One reason for this is because they are an incredibly rich source of a particularly valuable type of stem cell called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).
Rather than being limited to developing into a certain type of stem cells, MSCs are pluripotent—meaning they able to give rise to any other cell type in the body, from blood and bone cells, to muscle and brain cells.
In addition to this, the process of extracting stem cells from teeth is not only relatively straight forward, as in the case of cord blood, it’s considered the easiest and most cost effective method known to date.
A great time for MSC stem cells to be harvested is when a child’s milk teeth naturally fall out. This also has the added benefit that the stem cells are young and spared from nasty free radical damage caused by pollution and ageing. Having such an accessible source of MSC stem cells, is proving to be nothing less than revolutionary for stem cell therapy and the wider area of personalised healthcare.
As we are now able to easily extract and store stem cells from teeth, the shift toward more tailored and targeted treatments has become much more of a reality. With access to your own stem cells which have been previously stored from either your milk, wisdom, or perhaps one of your other removed teeth, the possibilities for treating and even reversing disease are endless.
Some of the potential downsides of tooth-derived stem cells are that we only have a certain number of teeth, and the technology is new, so there are few treatments currently available. This makes it all the more important to take good care of them now, and ensure you get them banked for the future.