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Understanding taste bud renewal may help cancer patients suffering from taste dysfunction

PLOS

Dany Gaillard and colleagues at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus have discovered a key molecular pathway that aids the renewal of taste buds, a finding that may help cancer patients suffering from an altered sense of taste during treatment. Their findings were published recently in the journal PLOS Genetics.

"Many cancer drugs which circulate throughout the entire body, will target a tumor but in the process affect healthy cells," said the study's senior author Linda Barlow, a professor of cell and developmental biology at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. "That in turn will alter a person's sense of taste [potentially] leading to malnutrition, weight loss and sometimes death."

Cancer patients, especially those with colon, head or neck cancer, often experience significant alteration of their sense of taste during chemotherapy or radiation treatment; food may have no taste, a metallic taste or taste so bad that it's impossible to swallow. Understanding how taste cells are renewed 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.

"Taste dysfunction can...result from an alteration of the renewal capacities of taste buds and is often associated with psychological distress and malnutrition," said the study's lead author Dany Gaillard, an instructor in cell and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

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 also a regulator of the renewal of epithelial tissue in adults including skin, hair follicles, the intestine and the mouth.

"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," said Barlow.

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.

New small molecule drugs are being developed that specifically block the Wnt pathway and may be effective against some tumor types. Gaillard and Barlow predict these could also cause taste dysfunction. Barlow said that there is still a lot to learn about how taste is altered at the cellular level, but believes that this discovery holds the promise of developing ways to improve the quality of life for cancer patients.

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COMPETING INTERESTS: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

CITATION: Gaillard D, Xu M, Liu F, Millar SE, Barlow LA (2015) β-Catenin Signaling Biases Multipotent Lingual Epithelial Progenitors to Differentiate and Acquire Specific Taste Cell Fates. PLoS Genet 11(5):e1005208. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1005208

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