January 2013

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Salivary Gland Gene Therapy Shows Promise

An experimental trial showed that gene therapy can be performed safely in the human salivary gland. The accomplishment may lead to treatments to help head and neck cancer survivors who battle with chronic dry mouth.

People with head and neck cancer often receive radiation therapy to shrink their tumors. The radiation can damage salivary glands, which make saliva in the mouth. Saliva is needed for taste, swallowing and speech. It also helps prevent infection and tooth decay. Salivary glands don’t always recover after radiation therapy.

NIH researcher Dr. Bruce Baum and colleagues launched a small clinical trial to test a gene therapy treatment that had worked to restore saliva production in animals. The scientists used a disabled virus to transfer a specific gene to 11 volunteers who’d survived head and neck cancer. The gene makes a protein that creates tiny tunnels that help move fluid. In this case, it helps salivary gland cells secrete saliva into the mouth.

The scientists found that 6 of the 11 treated patients had increased saliva secretion. Five also reported a renewed sense of moisture and lubrication in their mouths over the initial 42-day study period. There were no serious side effects.

For safety, the researchers used a virus that causes only short-term gene expression. Scientists will now work to develop longer term expression in salivary glands.