New dry mouth treatments investigated

Disabling dry mouth can be an unfortunate side effect of oral cancer treatments, leaving some people unable to ever again produce sufficient saliva due to radiation damage to the salivary gland.

Scientists at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research hope that they can uncover a way to repair or regenerate salivary glands to solve the problem. Matthew Hoffman, Ph.D., leads the Matrix and Morphogenesis section at NIDCR, and he is the senior investigator on the salivary gland development project. His team is busy identifying cells, signals and other factors that are key in the development of embryonic salivary glands.

Dr. Hoffman's team learned that there is a communication between cells that ultimately leads to a process of innervation—or the development of nerve fibers—in the development of the salivary gland. One type of cell involved has the potential to change into a number of cell types. The scientists theorize that these cells, known as progenitor cells, have potential use in salivary gland regeneration and repair.

"For a cancer survivor who is unable to make much or any saliva, progenitor cells could be isolated from the patient's body and then transplanted inside the diseased gland along with the factors they need to enhance or restore the ability to make saliva," Dr. Hoffman said.

The American Dental Association's consumer information website, MouthHealthy.org, has information on dry mouth—also called xerostomia—its causes, complications and treatment options. For more information this NIDCR salivary gland experiment, visit www.nidcr.nih.gov and search for "Spying on Cellular Cross Talk."

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