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Dental stem cells valuable for cornea repair, University of Pittsburgh researchers find

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, 11:53 p.m.

Those pesky wisdom teeth may be useful after all.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine say the dental pulp found in wisdom teeth is rich in stem cells that someday could be used to repair injured corneas.

“Wisdom teeth have a pretty powerful population of stem cells,” said Fatima Syed-Picard of Pitt's Department of Ophthalmology, lead author of a paper published Monday in the journal STEM CELLS Translational Medicine. “It's not just your wisdom teeth; it's all your teeth. You can get similar stem cells from baby teeth.”

The findings could lead to a new source of corneal transplant tissue to repair scarring of the cornea, the clear outermost layer of the eye, the researchers said. The scarring, caused by trauma, infections or genetic diseases, can result in permanent vision loss.

The team in the laboratory of ophthalmology professor James Funderburgh used pulp tissue from adult wisdom teeth obtained in routine extractions at Pitt's School of Dental Medicine.

Scientists cultured the extracted cells and turned them into keraocytes, which are cells that can heal the corneas. They then injected the cells into healthy mice to ensure they could work in a normal environment without being rejected, Syed-Picard said.

The method has not been tested in injured animals, and it could be years away from being tested in humans.

“I'm confident that this will be easy to translate to humans in the near future,” Syed-Picard said.

The Pitt scientists said they are looking at the wisdom teeth stem cells as a potential treatment to prevent corneal blindness, which afflicts millions of people worldwide.

The treatment of last resort is a corneal transplant using tissue from a deceased donor. Using stem cells from the patient's own tissue could help prevent rejection, they said.

There were more than 70,000 corneal transplants performed in the United States in 2014, said Kevin Corcoran, president and CEO of the Eye Bank Association of America. He was not familiar with the Pitt research.

“There's a lot of exciting research being done in the area of (corneal) transplant, and EBAA is interested in any outcome that can help restore sight to the blind or visually impaired,” Corcoran said.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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