Nancy Rawson, PhD, a cellular biologist who is the principle investigator said that the new technique of in vitro culturing of taste cells would help them to discover molecules that can enhance or block different kinds of tastes. Researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center have succeeded in growing mature taste receptor cells outside the body. They have also been successful in keeping the cells alive for a prolonged period of time. This is a break through as it opens a range of new opportunities for the scientists to understand the sense of taste and how it plays a vital role in nutrition, health and disease.
This technique may provide hope for people who have lost their sense of taste due to radiation therapy or tissue damage. This system gives us a way to test for drugs that can promote recovery. The results of this study are published in the journal 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 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 precursor cells known as basal cells.
The Monell researchers 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. The new cells had the ability to stay alive for up to two months and were similar to mature taste cells in several key respects. These cells were subjected to functional assays which revealed that the cultured cells responded to either bitter or sweet taste stimuli with increases of intracellular calcium, another property characteristic of mature taste cells.
Hakan Ozdener, MD, PhD said that the taste cell culture system provides new insight into the differentiation process of the basal cells into the functional taste cells. This study also suggests that induction of these cells does not depend on the interactions with the nervous system. The use of cultured taste cells is that researchers could excise more control over the cell's surrounding environment and have better access to sub cellular mechanisms analyzed. Various studies such as how taste stimuli interact behaves to enhance good tastes or suppress unpleasant tastes. Similarly, new molecules, including potential artificial sweeteners or bitter blockers, can be evaluated to see if they interact with taste receptors to activate the cell.
Another important aspect is the use of this knowledge in the treatment for these patients who have lost their sense of taste from radiation or diseases.
Researchers also hope to gain insight into how taste cell function changes across the lifespan, from infancy and childhood through old age.
Further research should be done using human taste cell biopsies and analyze it.