Guy Hiscott finds out how one UK company is pushing the boundaries of what dentists can offer their patients…
You might not expect the tooth fairy to have a Cheshire postcode.
In fact, you might not expect him to have any postcode at all, but then you might not expect to find a multi-million pound laboratory when you get there either.
But is that so strange? It’s the 21st Century after all. And the 21st Century is very much what the tooth fairy – or to use a more accurate name, BioEden UK – is all about these days.
Nestled next to a governmental particle accelerator on a high-tech science park not far from Chester, BioEden is set to make waves in the UK medical sector. It concerns itself with little things that you just might have heard of – stem cells.
The good news is that these stem cells aren’t the sort that are going to have human rights groups or international ethics committees banging down BioEden’s door any time soon. No: these stem cells come from teeth.
Stem cells are one of the buzzwords in modern science, and thanks to some of the methods used to harvest them, one of the biggest sources of controversy.
In themselves, the cells are innocent – and potentially capable of some miraculous things. Think of them as the ‘building blocks’ of the body, blank slates with the potential to multiply and differentiate into a wide range of other cell types – and which can theoretically be used in during a host of diseases.
It’s not quite that simple of course – there are different types of stem cells, with some more versatile than others.
Some have deeper moral connotations than others too. Foetal stem cells, for example, while having the potential to differentiate into any cell type in the body, can only be obtained from embryos – and come with all the ethical issues that you may have seen on the news.
The specific cells found in deciduous teeth are mesenchymal stem cells, which have more potential than stem cells from almost any other source, except foetal cells.
These tooth cells get trapped in the pulp as the tooth bud calcifies during the early stages of a child’s life. What BioEden does is extract these cells under sterile conditions and ‘amplify’ them; inducing them to replicate and grow in numbers – but stopping the process before they start to differentiate into any other type of cell.
This process should produce two samples, with at least 400,000 cells in each – and all from an initial yield of around 15-20 cells from the original tooth. Anything less than this is considered a failure, meaning the parents are invited to try again with another tooth.
There is no extra charge for this; it charges against results rather than attempts. Once this magic number is reached, the samples are placed into cryogenic storage.
There are a few conditions, of course. The tooth needs to get to BioEden as quickly as possible once it falls out. The company helps with this – once parents sign their child up to the service they are given a pack containing everything they need to ensure the sample makes it in peak condition.
BioEden’s CEO is one David James, a cosmetic dentist from Chester. He is still in practice – part time, of course – and splits his time between the company and the Chester Cosmetic Dental Centre.
While BioEden UK started officially trading in June 2007, the technology itself has a far longer history.
The first discovery that mesenchymal stem cells could be found in deciduous teeth was made in the early 1990s, although the subsequent procedure was not finalised and approved as a commercial process and cell bank until 2005.
David stumbled across the project accidentally: ‘I was doing some research on the web for a perio case, and I found a mention of a correlation between stem cells and baby teeth. From there, I learnt about BioEden.
‘A few emails went back and forth, and before long they asked whether we’d be interested in running out the procedure in the UK and Europe . So I went to see them with Kevin Long (the finance director).
We were happy with what we found, so we purchased the rights for this part of the world.’
Stem cells can be a bit of a hoary subject; ask someone on the street and their reaction is almost certain to mention foetal research or ‘playing God’. Foetal cells are an emotive issue. But harvesting the cells from deciduous teeth is comparatively ethically trouble-free.
I asked David whether the ethical pitfalls normally associated with stem cells have caused any problems along the way.
‘You have to be very ethical when it comes to stem cells. And of course, this is how it should be anyway, so that’s not a problem for us.
‘But our method is non-invasive – we take advantage of the natural process – and 90% of the time we get results from the naturally shed tooth. Some parents do choose to have their children’s teeth extracted, admittedly, but we don’t ask – or necessarily recommend – they do this!
‘Our approach has the support of the Roman Catholic Church, which has actually spoken for naturally achieved cells. It likes anything that isn’t embryonic, which I can understand.
When we went to Dubai to look at setting up in the Middle East, we had long discussions with them – we obviously had to make sure that nothing we were doing caused any problems with religious tenets. But everyone was perfectly happy with us there, so we’re definitely positive within Sharia law.
‘We have actually had a clean bill of health from all the normal religious and moral problems from around the stem cell area. We have no problem across the board, in that respect. We don’t interfere with the cells in any way; when we freeze them, they are in exactly the same state as when they left the body. All we do is expand the population. When therapies are approved, the therapy centres will be able to take the cells out in almost exactly the same state that they were shed in the tooth.
‘We’re not playing God; we don’t go and steal the cells, we don’t do anything with them other than find them and keep them as purely as we can.’
The future looks bright
For many – certainly for myself – the concept of retrieving stem cells from discarded teeth is a novel one. I ask David whether people are surprised to find their assumptions being challenged by his company’s ethical approach to obtaining the cells.
His reply comes with the easy amusement of a man who’s used to surprising people with this tack: ‘People like it!
‘I’m not exaggerating when I say I don’t think I’ve had a single negative response. It’s such an unexpected concept to people that I get a lot of “I don’t understand”, but that’s just a question of getting them to open up enough for the penny to drop.’
And once that penny does drop, the response is excellent. The future looks good for
BioEden UK, which already boasts customers from across Europe and beyond – even as far as the Middle East.
David acknowledges that for an ‘emerging science’ company, things are going well. But it’s clear that he’s a long way from satisfied.
‘It’s been successful, but we’re looking to develop things now, and get things moving forward. We’re registered with the HTA (Human Tissue Authority), which is the authority for all things cellular in the UK – so we’re official! We’ve proved that we can do what we say we can; that we can get cells out, that they’re safe, and can be stored.
‘We would like to promote it as a service. After all, we’re at the point now where we can say: “We do this. We do it properly, we know everything’s sound, and we can provide a genuinely reliable service.” ’
With the UK Stem Cell Initiative, the government has made its intention for the country to be at the forefront of stem cell research and therapy clear. This is something that clearly takes David’s interest.
He has been busy, making sure that the fruits of his labour have a potentially wider scope than just benefiting the company’s direct customers.
‘We’ve got some interesting projects up and running’, he says. ‘For a start, we’re in the process of coming to an agreement with the UK Tissue Engineering Group, who are looking at using our cells in therapeutic projects.
‘We’ve got a connection with the University of Adelaide in Australia, and they’re looking to do some research with us. And we’re hoping to work with Odontis at King’s College;
Professor Sharpe has seen our work and we’re talking about whether it could slot into what they’re doing down there.’
These wider projects could have astounding implications for dentistry, and for medicine as a whole.
For dentists, the process is arguably the ultimate insurance policy to offer their patients. There is clear link between what BioEden does and the capacity of dentists to educate and inform their patients – and as a dentist himself, David is eager to strengthen that link.