Wisdom teeth, the vestigial molars that ancient humans used to grind plants but nowadays serve no purpose, might have their uses after all. The teeth possess a gold mine of cells that can be reprogrammed into pristine, treatment-ready stem cells.
Most people's wisdom teeth, or third molars, grow in sometime between the ages of 17 and 25. A lot of these teeth end up coming in sideways, making the teeth impacted and requiring the surgical removal of the teeth. But all those (myself included) who got their wisdom teeth removed just because they were really painful and turning septic might have missed out on their own personal stem cell reserve.
It all goes back to a 2006 study that discovered the stimulation of four particular genes in adult cells could cause the cells to revert back to a stem cell state that was more or less identical to actual embryonic stem cells. This discovery opened up the possibility that these rejuvenated stem cells could form the basis for innovative therapies and treatments, made all the more potent because people were using their own stem cells in the treatment.
The problem is that the only way to make these so-called iPS cells is to harvest cells from a person's body. The reprogramming process is extremely inefficient and requires tons of starter cells to build up a decent culture of new stem cells. This is only made worse by the fact that the most readily available cells, such as skin cells, are also the least efficient and require the largest number of starter cells to get any result, while the most efficient cells, such as those from bone marrows, are difficult and painful to obtain.
That's where wisdom teeth come into the picture. According to a team of researchers at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the soft pulp inside wisdom teeth contain mesenchymal stromal cells that are extremely similar to those in bone marrow. But unlike bone marrow, wisdom teeth are easy to obtain and not needed for any vital biological functions, making them ideal candidates to extract for the generation of iPS cells.
Led by Hajime Ohgushi, the team used three sets of wisdom teeth to successfully create these new stem cells. In another beneficial innovation, only three genes needed to be activated to trigger the process. The fourth, superfluous gene is the c-MYC gene, and that's a major bonus - the c-MYC gene is known to make the newly generated stem cells turn cancerous.
The cells generated from wisdom teeth were about 100 times more robust than those taken from skin cells. The researchers are still examining the full benefits of wisdom teeth based iPS cells, but they say there's no reason we can't start preparing now for their future medical use. After all, wisdom teeth removal is already a common procedure in many nations, and the teeth can simply be frozen and stored until they are needed someday down the line. Now I really wish I had asked to hang onto my wisdom teeth...