New Danish research makes mouths water: stem cells boost saliva production

​For the first time in the world, Danish researchers have studied whether stem cells can resurrect saliva production in cancer patients suffering from mouth dryness following chemotherapy and radiotherapy for head and neck cancers. Results from the new study have attracted attention from abroad.


New Danish research makes mouths water: stem cells boost saliva production
For the first time in the world, Danish researchers have studied whether stem cells can resurrect saliva production in cancer patients suffering from mouth dryness following chemotherapy and radiotherapy for head and neck cancers. Results from the new study have attracted attention from abroad.

"The results have exceeded our expectations," said Dr. Christian Grønhøj, a PhD from the Department of Otorhinolaryngology at Rigshospitalet and the researcher behind the study.

A cancer diagnosis can be hard to swallow. Not only when receiving the bad news at hospital, but also when chemotherapy and radiotherapy are on the agenda. For the thousands of Danes diagnosed each year with throat cancer, the treatment often leads to severe mouth dryness and failing saliva production due to damage to the salivary glands.

This affects the patients' swallowing, health and quality of life, because a dry mouth makes it difficult to chew and swallow food. And many patients risk becoming isolated from the outside world, because they find it difficult to talk and eat in the company of others.

Now a team of researchers from Rigshospitalet seem to have found the answer to patients’ suffering:

"We had an idea that stem cells could help boost the salivary glands into producing more saliva in the many patients experiencing mouth dryness following radiotherapy for head and neck cancers. But we were not certain. As the first research centre in the world, we've now tested this stem cell treatment on human patients, and it seems to be effective," said Dr. Grønhøj.

Thousands of patients can regain their saliva function
The good news is that the stem cell treatment seems to be working, even several years after cancer treatment has damaged the salivary glands.

"In the long term, we hope that we’ll be able to help thousands of patients with this stem cell treatment. We'll continue our research and tests on many more patients, and hopefully we'll be able to offer this treatment as a standard treatment within a few years. The outcome for the patients in the first study has exceeded all our expectations. In fact we’re so pleased that we’re now even more ambitious for the future," said Dr. Grønhøj.

Together with Prof. Christian von Buchwald, a consultant at the Department of Otorhinolaryngology and several other colleagues from Rigshospitalet, Dr. Grønhøj took the initiative to launch the research project. Results from the project have just been published in the prestigious International Journal of Radiation Oncology, RED JOURNAL.

Visit from US experts
Results from the study have already attracted attention from abroad, not least after publication in the Red Journal:

"This treatment has positioned us at the forefront internationally - to such an extent that experts from the leading American cancer hospital, MD Anderson, will pay us a visit in March to learn about our experiences, among other things because were starting collaboration to study the interplay between stem cell treatment of the glands, increased saliva production and rehabilitation of the swallow function following cancer treatment, for example," said Prof. von Buchwald.

Head and neck cancers have overtaken cervical cancer
"Unfortunately, in recent years we've seen a major increase in the number of oropharyngeal cancer cases. In fact, the number of HPV-related cancer cases has now overtaken cervical cancer. Young men in their 30s are especially vulnerable. Fortunately, most patients survive the disease, but many of them suffer from after effects and reduced salivary gland function following radiotherapy," said Prof. von Buchwald and continued:

"Sadly, by far the majority of patients with head and neck cancers don't contact their GP until the cancer tumour is at an advanced stage. This means that radiotherapy is necessary to combat the cancer cells. Even though in many cases radiotherapy can cure the patient, this treatment has short-term and long-term consequences for the patient's quality of life, because the treatment damages the salivary glands and reduces saliva production.

About the study
The study included 30 patients. A total of 15 out of the 30 trial participants were injected with stem cells directly into their salivary glands. The stem cells had been harvested from their own belly fat. After a month, the patients who received stem cells experienced an average increase of 33% more saliva, and after four months, saliva production had increased by 50%, and the composition of saliva had improved. The patients also stated that they had significantly improved quality of life. A biopsy was taken from their salivary glands before and after treatment. The biopsy showed that scar tissue had been reduced following the stem cell treatment. Finally, neither the control group nor the treatment group experienced any side effects.

The project was conducted by the Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery & Audiology collaboratively with the Stem cell laboratory, the Department of Clinical Immunology, the Department of Plastic Surgery and Burns Treatment and the Department of Pathology at Rigshospitalet.
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