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 quite rare and there are many types of salivary gland cancer. But each year, scientists find out more about 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 called 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 targeted treatments that work better and cause fewer side effects. Someday these cell changes may also be used to diagnose salivary cancers, predict outcomes, and make treatment choices.



Advances in surgical techniques now allow teams of head and neck surgeons and neurosurgeons to remove small tumors and tumors near key structures, such as 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.

Radiation therapy

Advances in radiation therapy now permit more precise targeting of radiation and new ways of giving it. Intraoperative radiation, where radiation is given right to the tumor site during surgery, is being studied as a better way to treat salivary gland tumors that are likely to come back. This may help when treating tumors that are close to nerves or big blood vessels and only limited surgery can be done.


Metastatic salivary gland cancer (cancer that's spread to other parts of the body) is rare, so knowledge about treating these cancers with chemotherapy (chemo) is still evolving. Chemo drugs, often given along with radiation, are now being tested in clinical trials and may provide more options for people with advanced salivary gland cancer.

Targeted therapy

As researchers have learned more about the changes in cells that cause cancer, they have been able to develop 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.

Hormone therapy

Early research has found that some salivary gland tumors have too many receptors for male hormones called androgens and female hormones called estrogens. Doctors are looking at whether blocking these receptors may be useful in treating these tumors.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Revised: September 28, 2017

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