Researchers have shown that salivary cells cultured outside the body can be coaxed into forming organized structures similar to those found in the body. These images show cells marked with fluorescent dyes that identify specific proteins found in salivary tissues. (DTI/Photo courtesy of Swati Pradhan-Bhatt/University of Delaware)

HOUSTON, Texas/NEWARK & WILMINGTON, Del., USA: Scientists in the U.S. have started a four-year program with the aim of regenerating artificial salivary glands from patients’ own cells. As few researchers have applied tissue-engineering strategies in the past, they hope that their current work will lead to new solutions for cancer patients suffering from dry mouth as a consequence of radiation therapy.

The researchers estimate that about 40,000 head and neck cancer patients undergo standard radiation as an early course of treatment each year, which often destroys the saliva-producing cells in their mouths. Consequently, patients have difficulty swallowing, eating and speaking owing to dry mouth, a serious condition that is also known to accelerate tooth decay and to induce oral infections.

“There is currently no way to prevent or cure xerostomia for cancer patients who are undergoing radiation therapy. This is clearly a problem where regenerative medicine holds great promise for improving the quality of life for many people,” said Dr. Robert Witt, a head and neck surgical oncologist at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center.

For the project, the team developed a technique to harvest and grow salivary acinar cells, which are responsible for water and enzyme production, in the laboratory prior to radiation therapy. They also managed to implant them into test animals and maintain their functions, said Cindy Farach-Carson, professor of cell biology and the principal investigator of the study.

The scientists are currently aiming at regenerating whole salivary glands that can integrate into the host and increase saliva production. With this method, the doctors hope to culture a patient’s cells prior to radiation treatment in the future and then reimplant the salivary glands grown from these cells back into the patient’s mouth when radiation is completed.

In addition, the researchers think that the outcomes could benefit people with Sjögren’s syndrome, a chronic disease in which a person’s immune system attacks the body’s moisture-producing glands. According to the researchers, up to 4 million Americans are living with Sjögren’s syndrome.

The project is being carried out in a collaborative study by biologists, surgical oncologists and regenerative medicine specialists from Rice University, the University of Delaware and the Christiana Care Health System. The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research granted $2.5 million for the research.