Most of the 14,400 head and neck cancer patients in the U.S. who will undergo radiation therapy will likely experience an unpleasant side effect called xerostomia, or dry mouth. For most, the persistent dryness becomes a permanent part of their lives, causing difficulty with eating and speaking, oral infections, dental caries, tissue inflammation, and decreased quality of life.
A team of scientists led by Catherine Ovitt, Ph.D., from URMC’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health, report initial success in reducing dry mouth in mice by treating the salivary gland before radiation exposure. Their research, supported by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, was published in the journal Molecular Therapy.
Because the salivary gland is extremely sensitive to radiation, during therapy salivary gland cells activate a response that increases the production of specific proteins that direct the death of the cell. As more cells die, the salivary gland’s ability to make saliva permanently diminishes. The team was able to reduce cell death and decreased saliva production in mice by temporarily blocking the expression of these proteins.
“Our results suggest that this approach could be an effective means of protecting salivary glands during radiation treatment of head and neck cancer,” Ovitt said. She also pointed out that the approach has significant advantages over alternative methods, as it is limited to the salivary glands, does not involve viruses, and only temporarily blocks protein expression.
Read more about the study here.