Rugby player Kyran Bracken with his family

Rugby player Kyran Bracken with his family

Playing it safe: Rugby player Kyran Bracken with his family

When Kyran Bracken’s six-year-old son, Charlie, loses his first milk tooth, the tooth fairy won’t be getting a look in. Instead, the moment it comes out the tooth will be packaged up and sent to a lab in Cheshire for use in a future health emergency.

‘None of us knows what is round the corner medically for our children, but as a parent, I want to do the best I can to protect their health,’ explains Kyran.

The former England rugby union scrum half is referring to the fact that children’s baby teeth are now known to be a source of stem cells – the body’s ‘master’ cells which can turn into a host of other cells, including bone, fat and nerves. 

Stem cells are already being used to treat leukaemia and other types of cancers and blood disorders. The hope is they will soon help treat nerve damage, repair cartilage and even cardiac tissue following heart attacks.

The Brackens believe Charlie’s stem cells could possibly hold the key to his treatment should he ever become seriously ill – or even if he just lost a tooth.

‘I had one of my teeth knocked out during a match back in 1992, and had years of problems with it – crowns fell off and plates fell out,’ says Kyran. ‘It was only last year when I had an implant fitted that it stopped being a problem.

‘But if something like that happens to one of my boys’ – he and his wife Victoria have two other sons, Jack, four, and Lochlan, one – ‘they might even be able to re-grow their own teeth one day.

‘I’m sure that in 20 years’ time the possibilities of stem cells will be amazing, and collecting them when the children are young will prove to have been worth its weight in gold.’

Kyran, 35, heard about tooth stem cells from his sister Jane, 40, who, like their father, is a dentist.

‘Jane did lots of research into the potential benefits of storing the cells, and she told me she’d decided to have them collected from her three sons’ baby teeth in case of future need. She’s my big sister and, if she approves, that’s good enough for me.

At present, stem cell therapy uses those found in bone marrow and babies’ umbilical cords. Another potential source is human embryos, but this is highly controversial.

The cutting-edge discovery about tooth stem cells was made by chance in 2003 by Dr Songtao Shi, an American stem cell scientist and former paediatric dentist.

His six-year-old daughter decided she wanted him, rather than her mother, to pull out a wobbly tooth. When he glanced at the tooth, he noticed that the pulp – the soft tissue inside it – was still living.

Previously, no one had expected to find stem cells in baby teeth because these cells exist largely to repair the body – and baby teeth don’t repair themselves as they fall out so quickly. In his laboratory, Dr Shi extracted cells from the pulp and found that in the right culture, some of the tooth cells started to grow.

Kyran Bracken during the Rugby World Cup Quarter Final match between England and Wales in Brisbane, Australia, in 2003

Kyran Bracken during the Rugby World Cup Quarter Final match between England and Wales in Brisbane, Australia, in 2003

In action: Kyran Bracken during the Rugby World Cup Quarter Final match between England and Wales in Brisbane, Australia, in 2003

As well as forming new bone cells, the stem cells were also manipulated to form nerve and blood cells.

One advantage of this new source is that extracting the stem cells is painless, because children naturally start losing their milk teeth around six or seven. Another advantage is there’s more than one opportunity to harvest baby teeth stem cells: if one tooth doesn’t yield a good supply, the next one hopefully will.

The Brackens’ teeth will be stored by BioEden, the only company in Britain to offer this service. Families have to register with the company in advance so that they can be sent a special kit.

‘When the tooth falls out, it should immediately be put in the vial we send, which must then be filled with cold milk,’ says Jim Curtis, managing director of Bioden.

‘Milk is a nutrient-rich solution that helps the cells stay alive; if they were stored in water they would swell and burst like balloons.

‘The tooth needs to be kept cool, but not frozen, and reach our lab within 48 hours to enable us to extract live, healthy, viable cells. Clients contact us when the tooth is out, and we arrange a courier.’

Although there are only about 100 cells in a tooth, compared with millions in umbilical cord blood, Bioden claims its culture process means it can help the cells multiply naturally to one million – the minimum needed for cell therapy.

The advantage of using teeth stem cells over others is that you know how many stem cells you

have to begin with,’ says John Hunt, professor of clinical engineering at Liverpool University. ‘They are also purer than those from cord blood, which are more complex cells.’

Both bone marrow and umbilical stem cells are also slower to grow.

Kyran, pictured with his family in 2006, is preserving his children's baby teeth, which are a precious source of stem cells

Kyran, pictured with his family in 2006, is preserving his children's baby teeth, which are a precious source of stem cells

Saving up: Kyran, pictured with his family in 2006, is preserving his children’s baby teeth, which are a precious source of stem cells

Claire Stewart, professor of cell and molecular biology at Manchester Metropolitan University, is enthusiastic about the use of baby teeth stem cells.

‘I think the discovery and promise of stem cells in baby teeth will open doors for medicine in much the same way that bone marrow transplants did 40 years ago,’ she says. She adds that with donor stem cells there are also possible problems with rejection, and concerns about a raised risk of cancer.

Once collected and cultured, the baby tooth stem cells are stored in a test tube kept at minus 170c. The stem cells will keep for at least 20 years, it is claimed, although they may last even longer.

‘If we can’t get any cells from a tooth, we keep trying until the child runs out of teeth, without charging any extra,’ says Jim Curtis. ‘Our success rate on the first tooth is about 90 per cent – and we have never had anyone who has had to send us more than four teeth.

‘Key reasons for failure are when children haven’t brushed their teeth properly and tooth decay damages the pulp. Or when the tooth has hung by a thread for a week or so without being cleaned, and the stem cells are killed by common bugs.’

However, there are concern -that such services – including those where you can store your baby’s umbilical cord – are preying on parents’ fears with no real evidence that stem cell therapy will live up to its vague promise about future use.

And the service is far from cheap.

It costs £950 to process the cells in each tooth, plus £90 a year storage.

Dr Elizabeth Hill, a leading expert on the global biotechnology market, from Cambridge Consultants, is sceptical about these services. ‘It’s important not to get too excited,’ she says.

‘At the moment there is a difference between laboratory research and eventual practice, and the dental stem cell stored today might not work in the individual in the future.

‘Dental stem cells can be compared to the early development of IVF. You may have a viable frozen embryo, but when you transplant it into the mother, you don’t know if it is going to work.’

Kyran, however, is adamant that the exercise is worth every penny. ‘My parents are paying for my two elder boys and my sisters’ children as presents for us, and I am paying for our youngest.

‘The process is expensive but, God forbid, if one of my kids became unwell later on in life, I’d hate to be left thinking: “If only we’d stored them…”

But what about the tooth fairy? ‘We’ll just have to explain she took the tooth very quickly, but Charlie will still get money under his pillow – he’s hoping for £2. He’ll be happy with that.’

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