That's right, your mouth is filled with stem cells. In fact, you have stem cells throughout the tissues and organs found throughout your whole body.
These cells have the potential to play many different roles. Serving as a type of repair system, stem cells can theoretically divide forever, replenishing other cells for as long as a person is still alive. In terms of oral health for kids, babies use stem cells in their dental lamina to grow primary teeth.
When a stem cell divides, each "daughter" cell has the potential to either remain a stem cell or turn into another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a brain cell, red blood cell or muscle cell.
There are two types of stem cells: pluripotent or multipotent. Pluripotent can produce any type of cell in the body except those needed to support a fetus in the womb. Multipotent cells can give rise only to a small number of different cell types, including those for teeth.
The tooth is nature's vault for these valuable cells. There is a wealth of them in baby teeth, wisdom teeth and permanent teeth.
Losing a tooth means you'll probably have to get implants. But scientists are looking for alternatives through tooth regeneration.
Re-growing your tooth?
Regeneration is something seen in a variety of other animals. Salamanders re-grow their tails after losing them; starfish develop multiple arms and legs; sharks can re-grow a tooth within a day of losing one. In fact, the jaw of a shark has 40 to 45 teeth on average and can contain up to seven rows of replacement teeth. Since they're constantly rotating teeth on a conveyer belt-type system, sharks go through more than 30,000 teeth in their lifetime.
But alligator teeth, which closely resemble human teeth, may hold some of the answers to dentists' search for easier tooth renewal. An alligator can regenerate a lost tooth up to 50 times - something hockey players may be jealous of - and grow new teeth in sets of three. They have an adult tooth in their mouths, a replacement or "baby" tooth waiting just in case and a stem cell that can become a replacement tooth if necessary. Just steer clear of gator bad breath.
"When the mature tooth falls out, the second one becomes a mature one, and the stem cell becomes a baby one," Cheng Ming Chuong of the University of Southern California told US News. "Interestingly, they are able to do this process repeatedly."
Dental pulp stem cells
Humans have stem cells in dental pulp. Picture a cross section of a tooth - the pulp is the soft living tissue within the center of a tooth. Dental pulp stem cells are multipotent cells that have the potential to differentiate into a variety of cell types.
Studies have shown that stem cells in teeth might be among the most powerful stem cells in the human body. Stem cells from teeth replicate at a faster rate and for a longer period of time compared to stem cells from other tissues of the body.
In 2010, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center found a way to replace missing teeth by re-growing them with stem cells from your mouth.
Although scientific understanding surrounding regenerative medicine as a possibility in humans is still far off, it might one day reveal solutions for improved oral health for kids as well as for teenagers and adults.