September 5, 2011, Updated September 11, 2012

Dental researchers at Tel Aviv University say adult oral mucosa cells could be the source of new therapies for neurodegenerative, heart, and autoimmune diseases, as well as diabetes.

It is known that adult-derived stem cells are problematic because they are less pliant and less able to transform into the stem cells that science needs to find breakthrough treatments for disease. Yet, highly potent embryonic stem cells aren’t always available either because of ethical and safety controversy.

Now, Prof. Sandu Pitaru, of Tel Aviv University’s Goldschleger School of Dental Medicine, says science’s answer could be found in our mouths. According to Pitaru, stem cells of oral mucosa, the membrane that lines the inside of our mouths, do not seem to age along with the rest of our bodies.

“Wounds in the oral mucosa heal by regeneration, which means that the tissue reverts completely back to its original state,” he says.
Prof. Pitaru set out to determine if oral mucosa could be a source for young, fetal-like stem cells with this unique healing ability. Even when obtained from an older patient, he says, these stem cells still have properties of young or primitive stem cells – which have a high capacity to be transformed into different tissues.

Prof. Pitaru and his fellow researchers have already succeeded in coaxing oral mucosa stem cells into becoming other significant cells, including bone, cartilage, muscle, and even neurons.

All this, says Prof. Pitaru, is derived from a miniscule biopsy of tissue, measuring one by two by three millimeters. “We are able to grow trillions of stem cells from this small piece of tissue,” he says. The site of the biopsy is readily accessible, and patients experience minimal discomfort and require almost no healing time. This makes the mouth a convenient site for harvesting stem cells.

Pitaru’s research has been published in the journal Stem Cell.

Pitaru and his graduate students are currently in pre-clinical trials, implanting these stem cells into various tissues within small rodents. Their projects include researching the impact of the innovative cells as a treatment for chronic heart failure; neurodegenerative diseases; inflammatory autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease; and diabetes.

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Jason Harris

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