Researchers have discovered a key molecular pathway that aids in the renewal of taste buds, a finding that may help cancer patients suffering from an altered sense of taste during treatment. The study was published in the journal PLOS Genetics.
Cancer patients, including those with colon and head and neck cancer, often experience significant alteration of their sense of taste during treatment with chemotherapy or radiation. Food may have no taste, a metallic taste or taste so bad that it's impossible to swallow. Understanding how taste cells renew throughout adult life and how new cells replace old cells as they die is essential in finding potential therapies to improve taste sensitivity in those patients impacted.
Using mouse models, the researchers discovered that a protein in the Wnt pathway, called ß-catenin, controls the renewal of taste cells by regulating separate stages of taste cell turnover. The protein is crucial in developing taste buds in embryos and is a regulator of the renewal of epithelial tissue in adults including skin, hair follicles, intestine and the inside of the mouth.
As chemotherapy in general destroys dividing precursor cells including those that produce taste cells, activating Wnt signaling may be a way to renew taste buds after chemotherapy. This approach could form the basis for developing "complementary treatment to help restore normal taste function to avoid malnutrition and psychological distress for these patients," the study said.
New small molecule drugs are being developed that specifically block the Wnt pathway and may be effective for some tumor types, but they could also cause taste dysfunction. There is still a lot to learn about how taste is altered at the cellular level.
Based on material originally posted by University of Colorado Denver.