ICBioethics Blog 

Everyone SMILE! The Benefit of Stem Cells in Dental Implants

Written by: Aimee Zellers

When most people hear the word healthcare they often think of hospitals, doctor’s office visits, or a family member who has been ill. Dental care isn’t one of the first things that leap to mind. Perhaps that should change. Recent research suggests that the use of adult stem cells has been effective in patients needing dental implants but who lack specific bone density. People need dental implants for many different reasons whether the need is induced by disease or injury. One of the key problems in the placement of dental implants is a lack of sufficient alveolar bone. The alveolar bone is the portion of bone in the jaw where tooth sockets are located. When there is a lack of bone, there either has to be a graft or augmentation of some sort to accommodate any implant. Guided bone regeneration (GBR) is now being used to generate bone development in alveolar bone area. The augmentation of bone width through this technique can expand the bone ranging from 1.1mm to 5.7mm. The average bone development for patients undergoing this therapy is 3.6mm. One of the important pieces of GBR is the use of osteoprogenitor and mesenchymal stem cells from surrounding tissues in the patient’s body. These adult stems cells have shown the capacity for clonogenicity, self-renewal, and multipotent differentiation, all of which are very important for bone regeneration.

This is a prime example of using stem cells and existing technical procedures to produce an intervention that truly helps patients. One of the key issues surrounding the ethical considerations in stem cell research and stem cell treatments arises from the confusion of embryonic and adult stem cells. There are a myriad of ethical concerns surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells in the US. The research above uses adult stem cells and thus avoids many of the ethical concerns laid out in the next section.

Understanding the Difference between Adult and Embryonic Stem Cells

There are three primary goals for stem cell research: to develop new therapies for serious diseases, gain a better understanding of the how humans develop, and, finally, to test new drugs for effectiveness and reducing harm.  Stem cells possess two characteristics that render them unique from all other cells found in the human body; they can renew themselves through cell division and differentiate into different kinds of cells. Currently, it is very difficult to identify and isolate adult stem cells. Moreover, even when adult stem cells have been isolated, it has been incredibly difficult to grow them in an unspecialized state and differentiate them to be functional cells. They do not readily self-renew and can only differentiate into a limited number of cell types.  If adult stem cells are going to be used for therapeutic purposes, scientists must improve isolation techniques, successfully cultivate them and differentiate them into usable cells and tissue.  Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, already possess the two primary traits of stem cells; they are able to reproduce themselves and differentiate into specialized body cells. Human embryonic stem cells are retrieved from the inner cell mass of the blastocyst four to six days after the sperm and egg have merged. These embryonic stem cells can self-renew and multiply in huge numbers over several cell generations. Currently, they are the only pluripotent stem cell lines available to study.

Many who reject embryonic stem cell research do not reject stem cell research as a whole. The primary objection is that embryos are destroyed when used in embryonic stem cell research, and it is believed that embryos retain the same status as a born human being. Clearly, it is wrong to destroy born human beings in research. Since some equate the two as having the same status, they believe that it is wrong to destroy the human embryo.  These individuals contend that the blastocyst is a human person. Yet many other scholars contend that this is not the case. The debate regarding the moral status of early embryos exploded in 1998 with the first cultivation of human embryonic stem cells. The central issue in embryonic stem cell research is whether the blastocyst, existing outside of a womb, requires protection from destruction.

A position of growing popularity contends that a human embryo is not a unique individual until around the fourteenth day of existence, and therefore the harvesting of stem cells from the four to six day old blastocyst is not the destruction of an individual human being. The fourteen day mark is the point at which the zygote begins to be a distinct individual, because it separates from the embryonic supporting material, and specialized tissue and systems begin to develop. Therefore, the early human embryo does not need to be afforded the moral considerations currently applied to living or born humans. If this position takes root, embryonic stem cell research may be allowed to blossom in the future. This debate will continue, but we cannot let it drag on forever because there are effective medical technologies to be developed.


Check out the original article by Julio Carrion, DMD, PhD

The use of stem cells in dental implant site development

For more on ethics and stem cells check out these sources:

Cohen, Cynthia. Renewing the Stuff of Life: Stem Cells, Ethics, and Public Policy. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Peters, Ted, Karen Lebacqz, and Gaymon Bennett. Sacred Cells? Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research.New York, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008.

Mitch GennusoComment