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Researchers find solution to renew taste buds in cancer patients

by , 01 June 2015

Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy often experience a reduction in their sense of taste. This because cancer drugs used to kill cancer cells can damage healthy cells, including taste buds, impairing their ability to renew.

Now, new research has uncovered a mechanism behind taste bud renewal, paving the way for new treatment strategies for cancer patients with taste dysfunction…

Read on to find out more…

Cancer treatments can kill your sense of taste 

Lead study author Dany Gaillard, of the Anschutz Medical Campus at the University of Colorado Denver, and colleagues published their findings in the journal PLOS Genetics.
Taste buds are organs containing sensory cells that allow you to experience sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury) tastes. The majority of taste buds are on the surface of your tongue, though there are some in your cheeks, epiglottis and the upper oesophagus.
In total, adults have around 2,000 to 4,000 taste buds, which renew around once a week to maintain taste function. The exact process underlying taste bud renewal, however, has been unclear.
Many patients undergoing cancer treatment, particularly those who have head, neck or colon cancers, experience taste dysfunction. Some patients may be unable to taste at all, while others experience a metallic taste that can make it hard to swallow.
The cancer drugs used to kill cancer cells can damage healthy cells, including taste buds, impairing their ability to renew.”
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This, in turn, alters a person’s sense of taste potentially leading to malnutrition, weight loss and sometimes death,” notes senior study author Linda Barlow.
Researchers add, “understanding how taste cells renew throughout adult life, for example, how newly born cells replace old cells as they die, is essential to find potential therapeutic targets to improve taste sensitivity in patients suffering taste dysfunction.”

ß-catenin protein can save your taste buds

By analysing the tongues of mouse models, the team found a protein called ß-catenin controls your taste bud renewal. This protein is key to producing taste buds in developing embryos, and it also regulates the renewal of epithelial tissue in adults, including that of your mouth, skin and hair follicles.
When it comes to taste bud renewal, the researchers found that ß-catenin regulates the individual stages of taste bud turnover to control their renewal.
‘We show that activating this pathway directs the newly born cells to become primarily a specific taste cell type whose role is to support the other taste cells and help them work efficiently,” explains Barlow.
As such, the researchers believe that one way to restore sense of taste in cancer patients undergoing treatment may be to activate the pathway, prompting taste bud renewal.
Based on their findings, the researchers hypothesise that small molecule cancer drugs that block the pathway may also cause taste dysfunction, meaning patients receiving such drugs would need complementary treatment to restore sense of taste.
While the team admits there’s still much more to learn about the mechanisms underlying taste bud renewal, they believe their findings bring us a step closer to improving cancer patients’ quality of life.
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