Salivary gland cancer research | Cancer Research UK
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Research into salivary gland cancer

All treatments must be fully researched before they can be adopted as standard treatment for everyone. This is so that we can be sure they work better than the treatments we already use. And so we know that they are safe.

First of all, treatments are developed and tested in laboratories. Only after we know they are likely to be safe are they tested in people, in clinical trials. Cancer Research UK supports a lot of UK laboratory research into cancer and also supports many UK and international clinical trials.

For salivary gland cancer, researchers are looking into


CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating salivary gland cancer section.



Why we need research

All treatments have to be fully researched before they can be adopted as standard treatment for everyone. This is so that

  • We can be sure they work
  • We can be sure they work better than the treatments that are available at the moment
  • They are known to be safe

First of all, treatments are developed and tested in laboratories. For ethical and safety reasons, experimental treatments must be tested in the laboratory before they can be tried in patients. If a treatment described here is said to be at the laboratory stage of research, it is not ready for patients and is not available either within or outside the NHS. Cancer Research UK supports a lot of UK laboratory research into cancer.


Clinical trials

Tests in patients are called clinical trials. Cancer Research UK supports many UK and international clinical trials.

Our trials and research section explains about the 4 stages of trials. You can also look on the clinical trials database to find out about trials for salivary gland cancer. You may also find trials of interest to you, if you search head and neck cancer.

If there is a trial you are interested in, print it off and take it to your own specialist. If the trial is suitable for you, your doctor will need to make a referral to the research team. The database also has information about closed trials and trial results.

All the new approaches covered here are the subject of ongoing research. Until studies are completed and we know for sure that they are better than treatment offered at the moment, these potential new treatments can’t be used as standard therapy for salivary gland cancer.

Because salivary gland cancer is rare, there are fewer clinical trials than for more common types of cancer. It is hard to organise and run trials for rare cancers. It can take a long time to recruit the number of patients needed. Getting enough patients is critical to the success of a trial. If the trial is too small, the results aren’t powerful enough to prove that one type of treatment is any better than another.

Here is a video on experiences of taking part in a clinical trial:

View a transcript of the video (Opens in a new window) 


Tests for diagnosis

One research study has been looking at using different types of MRI scans to see if they are more accurate at diagnosing salivary gland cancer. Doctors in this study are using diffusion weighted MRI (DWI) scans that help to show up damaged tissue. They are also using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) scans that look at chemical changes linked to disease in body tissues. The trial has now closed and we are waiting for the results. 



Intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) is a newer type of radiotherapy where both the beam and the dose within the beam are shaped to match the tumour. It reduces the amount of normal tissue in the path of the radiotherapy beam. Research into using it for head and neck cancers shows that long term side effects may be less common or milder with IMRT. This type of radiotherapy treatment should now be available in every cancer network in England.

The COSTAR trial has been comparing conventional radiotherapy to IMRT for parotid gland cancer. The trial has now closed to recruitment and we are waiting for the results. But the aim of the trial is to find out if the IMRT reduces the amount of damage to the surrounding tissues. The researchers think this will reduce the risk of hearing loss. They are also looking at whether it works as well as conventional radiotherapy.


High pressure oxygen treatment

Rarely, radiotherapy to the head and neck area can damage the jawbone. This damage is called osteoradionecrosis (pronounced oss-tee-oh-radio-neck-row-sis) or ORN. The problem develops because the radiotherapy reduces the blood supply to the area. Doctors think that a high pressure oxygen therapy called hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) may be able to stop this happening.

The HOPON trial is looking at HBO for osteoradionecrosis. You may be able to join this trial if your cancer has been successfully treated with radiotherapy and you are going to have jaw or dental surgery. Doctors think that having dental surgery can trigger the problem.

If you do develop osteoradionecrosis after radiotherapy, your doctor may suggest surgery to remove the damaged jaw bone. HBO may help the bone to heal after surgery. Doctors want to test this in the DAHANCA 21 trial. Half the people taking part will have HBO before and after surgery to remove the bone. The other half will have surgery only.


Squamous cell cancer

Squamous cell cancer of the salivary gland is rare. Doctors use chemotherapy more often for squamous cell cancers than other types of salivary gland cancer. Researchers are looking into newer types of chemotherapy which may work better. These include paclitaxel and docetaxel.

Researchers are also looking into using biological therapy for squamous cell cancer of the head and neck, including salivary gland cancers. One type of biological therapy is cetuximab. A phase 3 trial showed that people with locally advanced head and neck cancer treated with cetuximab and radiotherapy lived longer than those who just had radiotherapy. Cetuximab is now licensed to use with radiotherapy to treat squamous cell head and neck cancers that have spread into nearby tissues.

For more information about trials for salivary gland cancer, go to the clinical trials database.



There is a European trial looking at a treatment called electrochemotherapy to see whether it is effective in head and neck cancers. Electrochemotherapy works in two stages. First a chemotherapy drug called bleomycin is injected into the bloodstream and a few minutes later a probe is used to send electric pulses into the tumour (electroporation). This has the effect of making the cancer cells absorb the drug more efficiently, so that treatment becomes possible with a lower dose of the chemotherapy drug. The risk of side effects and damage to normal, healthy tissue is less. The trial is called EURECA and Bradford hospital in the UK are involved in this study. 


PET-CT scans during treatment

Doctors have been trying a new way of scanning patients with head and neck cancer during treatment. They hope a combined PET-CT scan may give a better idea than other scans of how well the treatment is working. This study is now closed and we are waiting for the results.


Reducing side effects of treatment

Treatment for head and neck cancer can sometimes cause side effects that are difficult to cope with. There is information below about research into

Treating a dry mouth

Radiotherapy to the head and neck area can cause a dry mouth. This is very uncomfortable and can make chewing, swallowing and even talking difficult. If you are making some saliva, a drug to stimulate your salivary glands may help. These include the drugs pilocarpine and bethanechol. But these drugs can cause side effects such as blurred vision, sickness and sweating in about 1 in 6 people (15%) who take them.

Recent research suggests that a drug called amifostine can help with dry mouth. This drug is a chemoprotectant, meaning that it helps to protect against the harmful side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Amifostine is still only being tested at the moment and is not a standard treatment. Our section about mouth problems with cancer has detailed information about amifostine and other treatments for a dry mouth.

The LEONIDAS-2 study is looking at a medical device to stimulate the gums to increase the amount of saliva in the mouth. The researchers hope this will reduce the symptoms of dry mouth and improve quality of life. This study has closed and we are waiting for the results.

Some studies suggest that having acupuncture may help with a dry mouth caused by head and neck radiotherapy. We need more research before we can know exactly how much it can help. There is more information about acupuncture in the section about complementary and alternative therapies.

Acupuncture for pain after neck dissection

Some people who have a neck dissection operation, to remove the lymph nodes in their neck, also have their accessory nerve removed. This nerve controls shoulder movement. If it is damaged or removed, you may have a stiff and painful shoulder and neck. Your surgeon will probably suggest physiotherapy and non steroidal anti inflammatory pain killers (such as ibuprofen).

Early research in the USA suggests that acupuncture may help to relieve pain after neck dissection.

Acupuncture and moxibustion for lymphoedema

Lymphoedema is swelling caused by a build up of lymph fluid in the body. It can be a side effect of surgery or radiotherapy treatment if the lymph nodes that usually drain the fluid are removed or damaged. Lymphoedema can cause discomfort, pain and difficulty moving. There is no cure for lymphoedema, but treatments can relieve symptoms.

A small trial looked at acupuncture and moxibustion for lymphoedema. These are types of complementary therapies. Acupuncture uses fine sterile needles which are put just under the skin at particular points (acupuncture points) on the body. In this trial, they did not put the acupuncture needles in the area affected by lymphoedema. Moxibustion uses a dried herb called mugwort which is rolled into a stick. The moxibustion practitioner holds the glowing end of the lit stick over acupuncture points to warm them.

The trial team found that acupuncture and moxibustion was safe for people with lymphoedema, especially when the needles are not put in the area of lymphoedema. The people taking part reported some improvement in their symptoms. The team suggest that more research is needed to see how much it could help improve symptoms.

You can read more about trials for salivary gland cancer on our clinical trials database.


Quality of life

Cancer of the minor salivary glands may be included in some trials looking at cancer of the mouth or oral cavity. There is a trial looking at the quality of life for people who have this type of cancer.

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Updated: 1 July 2014