June 11, 2014 | by Darrin Joy
Few people might recognize the word xerostomia, but its effect is familiar. Conservative estimates suggest that 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from this malady, known more commonly as dry mouth.
The disorder arises when the mouth stops producing enough saliva. For many patients with cancers of the head and neck, the symptoms are all too common. Radiation therapy often is used to treat these cancers, and while highly targeted, the treatment can damage salivary glands. The result leads to difficulty swallowing and a lower quality of life.
There currently is no way to restore salivary gland function permanently. Artificial saliva is available, but clinicians generally don't regard it as an effective long-term solution.
David K. Ann, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, collaborating with Kirsten Limesand, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, aims to find better answers for these patients. The scientists recently received a five-year, $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Dental & Craniofacial Research, a part of the National Institutes of Health, to study stem cells that may restore salivary gland tissue damaged by cancer treatment.
Currently, little is known about stem cells in salivary glands and how they might react to tissue damage, mostly because it is difficult to find the cells. The researchers aim to zero in on salivary gland stem cells and determine what they do when the glands are damaged and how they might be manipulated to rejuvenate the glands.
An estimated 55,000 patients are diagnosed each year with head and neck cancers, which includes cancers of the mouth and throat. The ultimate goal for Ann and Limesand is to find an effective therapy to restore salivary gland function fully and improve quality of life for these patients, but others suffering from chronic dry mouth for other reasons potentially could benefit, as well.
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institutes of Health under grant number R01-DE-023534-01A1. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.