Imagine a sour cheeseburger, or a dish of tart ice cream. It might sound like edgy experimental cuisine, but it’s a nightmarish reality for many cancer patients, especially those fighting head and neck cancers.
Altered taste buds are a side effect of chemotherapy and radiation. Without the basic sense that makes eating enjoyable, patients become indifferent toward—or revolted by—food, which compromises quality of life and, even more seriously, can lead to severe malnutrition. Fortunately, there’s hope: This past May, researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus discovered a key molecular pathway, Wnt/ß-catenin, in the mouth that regulates taste-bud regeneration. Doctors Linda Barlow and Dany Gaillard, along with a small research team, identified the pathway after three years of experimentation. The next step is figuring out how the pathway works in order to reformulate patients’ sense of taste or, better still, prevent loss in the first place.
But because it’s a field with very little existing research—doctors don’t even fully know how healthy taste buds work—the team has yet to sort out the underlying biological processes. Still, Barlow says, the implications of finding the pathway are significant. “Most patients recover their abilities to taste, but it’s distorted for the rest of their lives,” she says. “We want to leverage our understanding of the pathway’s role in a way that promotes renewal.” For now, this breakthrough offers just a small taste of what’s to come.