Image credit by Shuttlestock

This article appeared in Newsweek, Pandora (November 23, 2023) reports that  Lidocaine has a strong bitter taste because it activates a taste receptor called T2R14. The receptor is also shown to be present at high concentrations in various cancer cells, particularly those in the mouth and throat. So, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania hypothesized that lidocaine may interact with cancer cells through the receptor. “We were surprised to find that lidocaine targets the one receptor that happened to be most highly expressed across cancers, study lead Robert Lee, an assistant professor of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked.

In previous research, their team found that activating the T2R14 receptors in cancer cells triggers a process that leads to controlled cell death. In its new study, published in the journal Cell Reports, the team found that exposing cancer cells to lidocaine can also activate the process, triggering a cascade of cellular signals that eventually lead to cell death. “While we’re not suggesting the lidocaine could cure cancer, we’re galvanized by the possibility that it could get an edge on head and neck cancer treatment and move the dial forward in terms of improving treatment options for patients with this challenging form of cancer,” said Ryan Carey, an assistant professor an co-lead author of the study. 

The drug poses a fascinating possibility as it can quickly be injected near or around accessible oral tumors. “Speaking as a head and neck surgeon, we use lidocaine all the time,” Carey said. “We know lidocaine is safe, we’re comfortable using it, and it’s readily available, which means it could be incorporated into other aspects of head and neck cancer care fairly seamlessly.” The most common head and neck cancer—squamous cell carcinomas—has a high mortality rate, with only 50 percent of patients surviving the past five years, even with treatment. 

So, the results offer a glimmer of hope for patients suffering from the disease. The results may not be limited to head and neck cancers, however, and the team hopes that lidocaine may also be beneficial to patients with other forms of cancer. For example, in April 2023, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that breast cancer survival rates increased when patients received lidocaine before surgery. Indeed, lidocaine might not be the only drug capable of triggering cell death in cancers via this receptor.

“What’s incredibly exciting is that a lot of existing drugs activate [T2R14], so there could be additional opportunities to think about repurposing other drugs that could safely target this receptor,” The team hopes that its proof of concept will pave the way for clinical trials into the addition of lidocaine to standard care therapy for head and neck cancer patients.  The Narrative Matters!

References:Pandora, D. (November 23, 2023). Scientists Find Anesthetic Kills Cancer Cells Via Unique Mechanisms. Scientists Find Anesthetic Kills Cancer Cells Via Unique  Mechanisms (newsweek.com)