What’s new in salivary gland cancer research and treatment?
Medical centers throughout the world are researching the causes and treatment of salivary gland cancer. This is a challenging disease to study because it’s not common and there are many types of salivary gland cancer. But each year, scientists find out more about what causes the disease and how to better treat it.
Biology of salivary gland cancers
Recent studies have found certain changes in chromosomes and genes of various types of salivary gland cancers. Researchers are learning more about how these changes can cause salivary gland cells to become cancerous. In some salivary gland cancer cells, 2 chromosomes have swapped parts of their DNA, which is known as a translocation. These changes often activate genes that affect cell growth. For example, adenoid cystic carcinomas often have translocations between chromosomes 6 and 9, and mucoepidermoid carcinomas often have translocations between chromosomes 11 and 19. The exact genes involved in these translocations are now being studied.
As scientists learn more about these and other changes in salivary gland cancer cells, they hope to use this information to develop new treatments that work better and cause fewer side effects.
Advances in surgical techniques now allow teams of head and neck surgeons and neurosurgeons to remove cancers that have spread near the base of the skull. These operations were not thought possible a few years ago but are becoming more common and successful.
Reconstructive surgery is becoming more sophisticated and successful, too. This lets surgeons do more extensive surgery to remove the cancer and improves patients’ quality of life after treatment.
Advances in radiation therapy now permit more precise targeting of radiation. Some types of radiation, such as fast neutron beam radiation, have been found to be particularly useful, but they require specialized equipment that’s not available in many hospitals.
Advanced salivary gland cancer is rare, so knowledge about treating these cancers with chemotherapy (chemo) is still evolving. Chemo drugs such as gemcitabine, capecitabine, and oxaliplatin are now being tested in clinical trials and may provide more options for people with advanced salivary gland cancer.
As researchers have learned more about the changes in cells that cause cancer, they have been able to develop newer drugs that specifically target these changes. These targeted drugs work differently from standard chemotherapy drugs. They sometimes work when chemo drugs don’t, and they often have different (and less severe) side effects.
Studies have identified changes in several proteins in salivary gland cancer cells that help these cancers grow and spread. Some of these changes affect proteins that can be blocked by targeted therapies that are already used to treat other types of cancer. Clinical trials are now looking at whether these targeted therapies can be helpful for salivary gland cancers.
Last Medical Review: 01/13/2014
Last Revised: 01/28/2015