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Researcher Receives Grant to Explore Colorectal Cancer, Taste Bud Receptor Connection

Taste changes are a common side effect of chemotherapy. About half of people undergoing chemotherapy report changes to their taste perception, such as an increased bitter taste.

August 31, 2021

Prasad Dandawate, PhD, a member of The University of Kansas Cancer Center’s Cancer Biology research program, received a three-year, $400,000 Department of Defense Peer-Reviewed Cancer Development Award to study the role of taste bud receptors in colorectal cancer progression.

Taste changes are a common side effect of chemotherapy. About half of people undergoing chemotherapy report changes to their taste perception, such as an increased bitter taste. After speaking to several people with cancer, including members of the cancer center’s patient research advocacy program, PIVOT, Dr. Dandawate had a startling realization: A bitter taste in the mouth may precede a cancer diagnosis.

After further exploring, Dr. Dandawate discovered that of the 25 bitter taste receptors we have, only one overexpresses, or increases in protein levels, in people who have cancer versus people who do not. In colorectal cancer, the bitter taste receptor is upregulated, or abnormally expressed at elevated levels compared to normal tissues.

“I kept digging – why was it upregulated in colorectal cancer? What role does taste play in this disease? That’s when it hit me. When this specific taste bud receptor is highly expressed, the odds of surviving colorectal cancer is lower,” Dr. Dandawate said.

Later experiments using the tumor samples of colorectal cancer patients showed receptor overexpression in 70 to 80 percent of people. This confirmed that the bitter taste receptor was expressed, and initial tests demonstrated that taste bud receptors were functional, or had an active role, in cancer progression. Using the funds provided by the Department of Defense, Dr. Dandawate will study animal models and cell lines to see how this receptor functions to better understand its role in colorectal cancer progression.

“It’s intriguing to consider that a bitter taste in your mouth may be connected to a cancer developing in another part of your body,” Dr. Dandawate said.

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