Scientific Breakthrough: Wisdom Teeth Save Lives
For decades, wisdom teeth were considered nothing more than a part of a painful rite of passage for many teens.
Scientists thought we had outgrown their purpose -- our ancestors used them to break hard nuts and roots, but we have no need for the extra chewing power anymore -- and people were encouraged to take them out as soon as possible.
But now, researchers are reevaluating their function. Wisdom teeth are at the spotlight of medical science, thanks to a recent discovery: The soft pulp inside wisdom teeth contains a tremendous store of stem cells, and it may soon be possible to store teeth after extraction and save them for later use.
The Real Purpose of Wisdom Teeth
Stem cells are valuable because they have the ability to save your life: They divide endlessly and can develop into many cell types the body can use to repair damaged cells. As a result, they offer huge potential for treating diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
But stem cells are often hard to extract from common sources like bone marrow -- not to mention they’re a big source of controversy when it comes to embryonic stem cell research. The recently discovered dental stem cells, though, can be removed much more easily, and wisdom teeth have been found to have an abundance of stem cells.
The great news: International studies already show promise that these new types of stem cells found in wisdom teeth can regenerate damaged bones and cardiac muscle.
“It’s exciting, but there are still a lot of questions,” says T. Bob Davis, a dental surgeon and the spokesman for the Academy of General Dentistry. “We’re just at the beginning of the curve.”
What the Breakthrough Means for You
Japanese dental researchers who made the discovery say that in the not-too-distant future, wisdom teeth may be frozen after extraction and stored in case a medical need arises. But U.S. dentists caution that the technology is still off in the future.
Wisdom teeth normally break through the gums between the ages of 17 and 25, but dentists typically begin assessing children -- through dental X-rays -- at 13 or so. If the teeth seem likely to cause problems, “the earlier they are extracted, the better,” says Davis. And despite the exciting progress of science, Davis adds that for now, the news will likely not change dentists’ recommendations about wisdom tooth extractions.
Sarah Mahoney is the managing editor of Oral Care and Health Daily. A health editor and reporter, she also contributes to Good Housekeeping, Parents and Prevention.
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