Xerostomia (dry mouth) is the most common side effect of radiation therapy in patients with head and neck cancer and causes difficulty speaking and swallowing. Since aldehyde dehydrogenase 3A1 (ALDH3A1) is highly expressed in mouse salivary stem/progenitor cells (SSPCs), we sought to determine the role of ALDH3A1 in SSPCs using genetic loss-of-function and pharmacologic gain-of-function studies. Using DarkZone dye to measure intracellular aldehydes, we observed higher aldehyde accumulation in irradiated Aldh3a1-/- adult murine salisphere cells and in situ in whole murine embryonic salivary glands enriched in SSPCs compared with wild-type glands. To identify a safe ALDH3A1 activator for potential clinical testing, we screened a traditional Chinese medicine library and isolated d-limonene, commonly used as a food-flavoring agent, as a single constituent activator. ALDH3A1 activation by d-limonene significantly reduced aldehyde accumulation in SSPCs and whole embryonic glands, increased sphere-forming ability, decreased apoptosis, and improved submandibular gland structure and function in vivo after radiation. A phase 0 study in patients with salivary gland tumors showed effective delivery of d-limonene into human salivary glands following daily oral dosing. Given its safety and bioavailability, d-limonene may be a good clinical candidate for mitigating xerostomia in patients with head and neck cancer receiving radiation therapy.
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