The future of cell therapy: Novel study tests treatment for radiation-induced dry mouth


For certain side effects of complex and lifesaving medical procedures, care teams can be left with limited and risky treatment options, but a program at UW Health is changing that using patients’ own cells as “living therapeutics.”

In 2017, the UW Program for Advanced Cell Therapy (PACT), in partnership with the UW Carbone Cancer Center, began examining this possibility and recently treated its first patients in a first-of-its-kind clinical trial to treat dry mouth — technically termed xerostomia — which is a serious side effect that can arise after radiation therapy in head and neck cancer patients.

What seems like a minor annoyance on a hot day is a common and major hindrance to quality of life for patients following radiation treatment, according to Dr. Jacques Galipeau, director, PACT.

Jacques Galipeau
Jacques Galipeau

“Patients who have dry mouth struggle to eat, sleep and speak, on top of the pain, fatigue and tooth decay it can cause,” he said. “Now we have something that has the potential to treat this without any serious side effects.”

The new therapy uses a special kind of cell from the body’s bone marrow called interferon-gamma activated marrow stromal cells. Once the cells are collected with a needle from the liquid part of bone marrow (the spongy material inside bones that generates red blood cells), they are processed and a crop of cells are grown at PACT’s pharmaceutical-grade cell manufacturing facility at University Hospital. Then, the cells are injected into saliva-producing glands to replenish the tissue and restore function.

The PACT dry mouth trial is led by Dr. Randy Kimple, associate professor of human oncology, UW School of Medicine and Public Health. Kimple and his team will enroll about 20 people in the trial.

Randy Kimple
Randy Kimple

Currently, the only options to help these patients is to ask them to consume specifically prepared food, suck on sugar-free candy and drink water frequently, Kimple said.

“We can do better than this for these patients,” he said. “We are at the starting line, and if this proves safe, we will start testing efficacy and soon we hope to have the best possible alternative to make their lives as comfortable as we can.”

Philanthropy can help expand the scope of this study’s future phases, and other novel clinical trials conducted by PACT researchers. Other studies include research investigating the use of mesenchymal stromal cells to prevent cytomegalovirus reinfection in kidney transplant and bone marrow transplant patients, for example. The impact of such research is tremendous but it takes resources to make it a reality, Galipeau said.

“The help of outside funding is critical to our work,” he said. “We have the ideas and the technology, but to help the largest number of people the fastest, it’s going to take investment.”

Philanthropy helps expand research of this type, and highlights the vital importance of the recently announced Wisconsin Medicine philanthropic campaign designed to invest in the future of health and enable researchers and providers to revolutionize cell therapy and other medical science and health care.