A top medical researcher is leading a groundbreaking new medical treatment for those who suffer permanent dry mouth after throat cancer.
Dr Elaine Emmerson, from The University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, is learning how to grow back salivary glands after radiotherapy.
The scientist, from Birstall, West Yorkshire, was inspired to investigate the horrific side effects of radiotherapy after her dad passed away after a battle with throat cancer in 2005.
Her team is one of the few in the world looking to develop a new technology that can be implanted into the injured gland, and which could successfully allow victims of throat cancer to have saliva once again.
The Throat Cancer Foundation (TCF) has been working with the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, which is part of the University of Edinburgh, as part of Dr Emmerson’s research.
TCF are dedicated to reducing the impact of throat cancer on individuals, their carers and wider society.
Dr Emmerson, who attended Heckmondwike Grammar School, said: “We are developing a method to help salivary gland regeneration, predominantly following head and neck cancer treatment.
“Our research addresses how the cellular environment around the gland is playing a supportive role in regeneration of the glands, specifically looking at the nerves.
“We’re interested in how those nerves contribute to regenerating the gland, and when they’re missing, how we can replace or mimic them.”
Patients after head and neck cancer treatments are often left with no saliva production, which has a knock-on effect and leaves a chronic dry mouth and an impact on speech, eating, tasting and sleeping. It can also cause severe tooth decay and loss.
“Most of the time this is due to damage to or destruction of the salivary glands – and so far there’s no cure,” Dr Emmerson continued.
“Patients are reliant on short term treatments, which either replicate saliva, with limited success, or aim to try and stimulate the residual tissue that’s still there, which has so many off-target side effects that patients cease treatment.”
Her bid comes after her dad John Emmerson, died after a short battle with head and neck cancer when he was just 57.
Although he underwent a series of gruelling treatments, tragedy struck Elaine’s family when her dad suffered a major bleed, caused by the cancer weakening blood vessels, which he sadly was unable to recover from.
“At that stage I had finished my undergraduate degree, so I knew a fair amount about biology and health, but I wasn’t really aware of what he was going through,” Elaine explains.
“I learnt a lot about head and neck cancer and all of the side effects as he was going through his treatment.
“It was the first time that I became aware of the fact that you lose your salivary function after radiotherapy.
“He was having contact with dentists who were talking about tooth extraction. I became really interested in why.
“Sadly, we lost my dad that year. He went through a massive amount of treatment and was actually coming out the other side and looking towards the future with a lot of optimism, despite the huge hurdles he was still to face.
“But then he had a massive bleed. That’s one of the reasons that I’ve been dedicated to this area of research.
“And obviously I hope to make my dad proud.”
Throughout the team’s research, the aim is to be able to restore the environmental signals that promote the regeneration of salivary glands.
Cells require specialised signals from their environment, which are often lost when the organ is damaged through gruelling cancer treatments.
“Successfully achieving this goal would greatly improve the quality of life and oral health for thousands of head and neck cancer patients,” Elaine continued.
The Throat Cancer Foundation is working tirelessly with researchers at the University of Edinburgh in their bid to complete the breakthrough treatment.
Jamie Rae, TCF’s Founder and Chief Executive and a survivor of throat cancer, has said the latest research has left him “filled with hope.”
He added: “I remember the day I received a phone call from Dr Emmerson asking if I was interested in her work. I was in my local supermarket and literally jumped for joy when she explained her research objectives, I was so excited.
“Dry mouth is a horrendous condition that anyone subjected to treatment for throat cancer lives with every day for the rest of their lives.
“It makes you think twice about going out for a meal with friends, avoiding anything spicy and eating slowly and carefully, taking extra care not to choke when you swallow your food. I honestly cannot remember the last time I had a full night of sleep due to dry mouth.
“To discover that right here in Scotland was a team working on a solution to this was amazing. It fills me with hope that we can finally have a breakthrough that would change millions of lives worldwide.
“The Throat Cancer Foundation is fully committed to supporting this work and would encourage the public to support us also, all donations received are used to alleviate suffering, campaign for better outcomes and support research.”