Research in salivary gland cancer

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We are always learning more about cancer. Researchers and healthcare professionals use what they learn from research studies to develop better ways to treat salivary gland cancer. The following is a selection of research showing promise for treating salivary gland cancer.

We've included information from the following sources. Each item has an identity number that links to a brief overview (sometimes called an abstract).

  • PubMed, US National Library of Medicine (PMID)
  • (NCT)

Radiation therapy

The following is noteworthy research in radiation therapy for salivary gland cancer.

Radioligand therapy (RLT) delivers radiation directly to – and only to – cancer cells wherever they are in the body. Radiation is attached to a molecule that specifically binds to cancer cells. Researchers are currently seeing if RLT using lutetium-177 binds to the prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA) receptors on the surface of some salivary gland cancer cells to help treat advanced adenoid cystic carcinoma (, NCT 04801264).

Post-operative radiation therapy (PORT) means giving radiation therapy after surgery to remove a tumour. Studies show that PORT can reduce the spread of salivary gland cancer and improve survival (Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, PMID 33152705; Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, PMID 30721113).

Fast neutron therapy is a type of radiation therapy that uses fast-moving neutrons to kill cancer cells. Researchers are studying fast neutron therapy to find out if it is more effective than standard radiation therapy in treating some types of salivary gland tumours. Currently, fast neutron therapy is available only in a few centres around the world (Cureus, PMID 34104589).

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific molecules (such as proteins) on cancer cells or inside them. These molecules help send signals that tell cells how to grow or divide. By targeting these molecules, the drugs stop the growth and spread of cancer cells and limit harm to normal cells. Researchers are looking for the best ways to treat salivary gland cancer using targeted therapy.

Researchers are studying which targeted therapy drug may be best to treat advanced salivary gland cancer based on the specific parts of the cells, such as hormone receptors and genes. Early research shows that targeted therapy drugs that specifically target these parts of the cancer cells can provide better treatment and improve survival (Annals of Oncology, PMID 32067683).

Selitrectinib (LOXO-195) and repotrectinib (TPX-0005) are a new generation of neurotrophic tyrosine receptor kinase (NTRK) inhibitors. Researchers are currently seeing if these 2 drugs are helpful in treating TRK fusion-positive salivary gland cancers that no longer respond to larotrectinib (Vitrakvi) and entrectinib (Rozlytrek) (Annals of Oncology, PMID 31738426; Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, PMID 30333516).

Trastuzumab (Herceptin) is a drug that targets the HER2 gene on the surface of some cancer cells. Researchers are currently looking at using trastuzumab to treat HER2-positive salivary gland cancer after other treatments were used (The Oncologist, PMID 32310325). They are also studying trastuzumab in combination with a chemotherapy drug called docetaxel (Journal of Clinical Oncology, PMID 30452336).

Trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla or T-DM1) is a combination of trastuzumab and the chemotherapy drug emtansine (DM1). Researchers are trying to find out if it is effective at treating metastatic salivary gland cancer (JCO Precision Oncology, PMID 30906914).

Trastuzumab deruxtecan (Enhertu) is a combination of trastuzumab and the chemotherapy drug deruxtecan. Early studies show that it may be effective at treating metastatic salivary gland cancer that was previously treated (Cancer Discovery, PMID 32213540).

Pertuzumab and trastuzumab (Phesgo) is a combination of trastuzumab and another targeted therapy drug called pertuzumab (Perjeta). Studies are looking to see if it is effective at treating advanced salivary gland cancer (Annals of Oncology, PMID 32067683).

Lenvatinib (Lenvima) is a type of targeted therapy called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor. Researchers are trying to find out if lenvatinib can treat recurrent or metastatic adenoid cystic carcinoma (Journal of Clinical Oncology, PMID 30939095; Cancer, PMID 32031693).

Tipifarnib (Zarnestra) is a new type of targeted therapy drug called a farnesyltransferase inhibitor. It works by blocking the protein that signals HRAS, which is involved in cell growth. Early research shows that tipifarnib can slow the growth of recurrent and metastatic salivary gland cancer cells with HRAS mutations (Cancer, PMID 32557577).

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy is a treatment that adds, blocks or removes hormones to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells that need hormones to grow.

Androgen deprivation therapy blocks the action of hormones on the androgen receptors. Salivary duct carcinoma cells often have androgen receptors, so androgen deprivation therapy may work on these tumours. Giving androgen deprivation therapy after surgery for advanced salivary gland cancer may prevent the cancer from coming back (recurring) and improve survival (European Journal of Cancer, PMID 30771738).

Goserelin (Zoladex) combined with pembrolizumab (Keytruda) may be effective in treating salivary gland cancer. Goserelin is a type of hormone therapy called a luteinizing hormone–releasing hormone (LHRH) agonist. Pembrolizumab is an immunotherapy drug. Researchers are currently looking at whether this drug combination is effective at treating metastatic or recurrent salivary gland cancer that can't be treated with surgery or radiation therapy (, NCT 03942653).


Immunotherapy helps strengthen or restore the immune system's ability to find and destroy cancer cells. Researchers are trying to find out if immunotherapy can help treat salivary gland cancer.

Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is an immune checkpoint inhibitor that works by blocking the PD-1 checkpoint proteins so immune system cells (called T cells) attack and kill cancer cells. Research is currently looking at the combination of pembrolizumab and a chemotherapy drug called docetaxel to treat salivary gland cancer that has no other treatment options available (, NCT 03360890). Another study is looking at the combination of pembrolizumab and pemetrexed (Alimta) to treat recurrent or metastatic salivary gland cancer (, NCT 04895735).

CAR T-cell therapy takes millions of T cells from a person with cancer. In the lab, the cells are changed so they have chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) on their surface. These receptors recognize a specific antigen (protein) found on the type of cancer cell being treated. The T cells are then given back to the person where they multiply, attack and destroy the cancer cells. For salivary gland cancer, researchers are studying P-PSMA-101 CAR T cells to target cancer cells that have PSMA receptors. They are looking at the best dose to safely treat advanced adenoid cystic carcinoma (, NCT 04249947).

Nivolumab (Opdivo) and ipilimumab (Yervoy) are monoclonal antibodies. Researchers are currently investigating how well these 2 drugs work when given together with a type of radiation therapy called stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) to treat advanced salivary gland cancer (, NCT 03749460).

Learn more about cancer research

Researchers continue to try to find out more about cancer. Clinical trials are research studies that test new ways to treat cancer. They also look at ways to prevent, find and manage cancer.

Clinical trials provide information about the safety and effectiveness of new approaches to see if they should become widely available. Most of the standard treatments for cancer were first shown to be effective through clinical trials.

Find out more about clinical trials.

Expert review and references

  • Lillian L Siu, MD, FRCPC

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