Autism Researchers Get A Little Help From The Tooth Fairy

Rayshell Clapper for – Your Universe Online

Every day, across the United States, some little kid loses a tooth, which means every night that same little kid has a magical visit from the tooth fairy who replaces it with money. But what happens to those teeth? Sure, they may be stored away as keepsakes, but that’s a lot of baby teeth for parents to pack away.

Scientifically, there are some serious benefits in studying those teeth. In fact, the Radiation and Public Health Project started a program called the Tooth Fairy Project. This project has participating families send the baby teeth in so that they can study them, specifically looking at elements the teeth have been exposed to since inception. The program looks for Radioactive Strontium-90 (Sr-90) because it is so deadly, and like calcium the body stores it in the bones and teeth indefinitely. Sr-90 will continue to emit cancer-causing radiation, so studying baby teeth will help researchers “accurately determine when and where radioactivity was absorbed from the environment.”

But this is not the only study for which the Tooth Fairy Project has proven to be a benefit. According to the University of California San Diego (UCSD), the Tooth Fairy Project has recently benefited studies on autism. The teeth also go to other researchers, and these scientists “extract dental pulp cells from the tooth and differentiate them into iPSC-derived neurons.”

iPSC – or induced pluripotent stem cells – have implicated a new gene on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that falls under the idiopathic category. Idiopathic means non-syndromic autism or autism in which the cause is unknown as defined by the National Human Genome Research Institute. About 85 percent of those who have been diagnosed with autism have idiopathic autism.

The gene discovered by UCSD scientists lead by Alysson Muotri, PhD, associate professor in the UCSD departments of Pediatrics and Cellular and Molecular Medicine, shows an association to Rett syndrome, one of the ASDs, but also supports the idea that different types of ASDs could likely share similar molecular pathways.

As UCSD’s Scott LaFee explains, “The latest findings, in fact, are the result of Muotri’s first tooth fairy donor. He and colleagues identified a de novo or new disruption in one of the two copies of the TRPC6 gene in iPSC-derived neurons of a non-syndromic autistic child. They confirmed with mouse models that mutations in TRPC6 resulted in altered neuronal development, morphology and function. They also noted that the damaging effects of reduced TRPC6 could be rectified with a treatment of hyperforin, a TRPC6-specific agonist that acts by stimulating the functional TRPC6 in neurons, suggesting a potential drug therapy for some ASD patients.”

Image Caption: This is Alysson Muotri, Ph.D. Credit: UC San Diego School of Medicine

So, thanks to the tooth fairy, these new findings may help those who have been diagnosed themselves or have a family member diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder to treat the disorder and cope with the symptoms. By studying the genomics, scientists, doctors, and patients can find greater understandings of the who, what, why and how of genes related to different issues include ASD. Ideally, this can only lead to greater prevention, treatment and healing.

In the words of Dr. Muotri, “I see this research as an example of what can be done for cases of non-syndromic autism, which lack a definitive group of identifying symptoms or characteristics. One can take advantage of genomics to map all mutant genes in the patient and then use their own iPSCs to measure the impact of these mutations in relevant cell types. Moreover, the study of brain cells derived from these iPSCs can reveal potential therapeutic drugs tailored to the individual. It is the rise of personalized medicine for mental/neurological disorders.”

Findings of this study were published in the Nov. 11, 2014 online issue of Molecular Psychiatry.


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