Researchers study Autism using children’s baby teeth

Patrícia Braga
Elaine Patrícia Cruz Reporter Agência Brasil
São Paulo – A group of researchers from the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) - in collaboration with Professor Alysson Muotri from The University of California San Diego - have started a project called “The tooth Fairy”, which goal is to understand Autism. For this study, the researchers collect the baby teeth of autistic children. They have used the teeth’s pulp as starting material to obtain stem cells, which are differentiated into neurons. This allows identification of the differences present in autistic cells, study their function and test drugs. "The objective of the study is to understand what happens in the brain of the autistic patient", explains Patrícia Beltrão Braga, Biologist, Professor at USP and coordinator of the research project in Brazil. According to the researcher, it would be required to access the cells inside of the autistic brain to achieve this goal. The alternative is then to create an analog model, using the technique developed by Shinya Yamanaka, recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Yamanaka developed a way to reprogram adult cells, to transform them into stem cells, which are similar to embryonic cells. In other words, adult cells are rejuvenated to a stage similar to that of six to seven days after the human egg is fertilized. “From that moment these cells can be used to produce neurons, because these reprogramed cells can generate any of the human body tissues or organs”, explains the researcher. Patrícia learned the technique to reprogram cells (first developed by Yamanaka in 2008) during her stay in the US. A year later she began to use it in Brazil, using cells from the pulp of baby teeth. “We use cells from the pulp of baby teeth, which are not really embryonic cells and are known as Induced Pluripotent Stem cells (IPSCs)”, she clarifies. “Researchers program these cells, like if they were putting them in a time machine. The cells rollback in time, turning into something similar to embryonic cells. At that point we induce the cells to differentiate into neurons”, Patricia highlights. According to her, cells from baby teeth pulp were selected because they were easy to obtain. Nonetheless, she notes other advantages: “We determined that by using dental pulp the procedure would be faster. Moreover, teeth and nervous system share the same embryonic origin. Therefore, people think that pulp cells could more easily differentiate into neurons, when compared to other possible cell types. Lastly, baby teeth fall off and people throw them away.” On its initial stage, the project focus is basic research on the disease. Patrícia explains that in a later stage, the intention will shift to experiment with drugs, to see if it is possible to revert the symptoms of Autism. "Autism is a neurodegenerative disorder, classified using a symptomatic triad: attention deficit, socialization problems and behavioral anomalies. Some of the commonly observed manifestation are speech deficiency or its absence, difficulty to make friends and repetitive behaviors." Parents whose kids have been diagnosed with Autism can contribute to the project. Researchers can be contacted by e-mail Registered parents will receive a kit to collect the teeth when they become loose and fall. The kit includes a tube with liquid to preserve the cells, cooling gel pack and a Styrofoam box. Parents have to pay for shipping the kit. If a tooth comes off and the kit is not nearby, the tooth must be put in filtered water and put it in the refrigerator. This is to avoid the dental pulp cells to die from drying up. The tooth must be collected quickly to remain viable and its cells can be used. For the same reason the tooth must not be frozen. Editing: Talita Cavalcante. The content on this website is published under a Creative Commons License Atribution 3.0 Brazil. Give credit to Agência Brasil if you wish to reproduce it elsewhere.

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