"We have an important new tool to help discover molecules that can enhance or block different kinds of tastes," explains principle investigator Nancy Rawson, PhD, a cellular biologist. "In addition, the success of this technique may provide hope for people who have lost their sense of taste due to radiation therapy or tissue damage, who typically lose weight and become malnourished. This system gives us a way to test for drugs that can promote recovery."
The findings are reported in an online issue of Chemical Senses.
Taste receptor cells are located in taste buds on the tongue and in the throat. These cells contain the receptors that detect taste stimuli: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). Each taste receptor cell lives for only about 10-14 days, after which it is replaced. The new taste cells develop from a population of undifferentiated precursors known as basal cells.
Understanding of the process of taste cell differentiation, growth and turnover has been hampered by the inability of researchers to keep taste cells alive outside the body in controlled laboratory conditions.
To address this long-standing problem, the Monell researchers utilized a novel approach. Instead of starting with mature taste cells, they obtained basal cells from rat taste buds and placed these cells in a tissue culture system containing nutrients and growth factors. In this environment, the basal cells divided and differentiated into functional taste cells.