Long-term functional regeneration of radiation-damaged salivary glands through delivery of a neurogenic hydrogel

Sci Adv. 2022 Dec 21;8(51):eadc8753. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.adc8753. Epub 2022 Dec 21.


Salivary gland acinar cells are severely depleted after radiotherapy for head and neck cancer, leading to loss of saliva and extensive oro-digestive complications. With no regenerative therapies available, organ dysfunction is irreversible. Here, using the adult murine system, we demonstrate that radiation-damaged salivary glands can be functionally regenerated via sustained delivery of the neurogenic muscarinic receptor agonist cevimeline. We show that endogenous gland repair coincides with increased nerve activity and acinar cell division that is limited to the first week after radiation, with extensive acinar cell degeneration, dysfunction, and cholinergic denervation occurring thereafter. However, we found that mimicking cholinergic muscarinic input via sustained local delivery of a cevimeline-alginate hydrogel was sufficient to regenerate innervated acini and retain physiological saliva secretion at nonirradiated levels over the long term (>3 months). Thus, we reveal a previously unknown regenerative approach for restoring epithelial organ structure and function that has extensive implications for human patients.