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Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2001 Mar 15;49(4):907-16.

A prospective study of salivary function sparing in patients with head-and-neck cancers receiving intensity-modulated or three-dimensional radiation therapy: initial results.

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  • 1Radiation Oncology Center, Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, Washington University Medical Center, St. Louis, MO 63110, USA.



In a prospective clinical study, we tested the hypothesis that sparing the parotid glands may result in significant objective and subjective improvement of xerostomia in patients with head-and-neck cancers. The functional outcome 6 months after the completion of radiation therapy is presented.


From February 1997 to February 1999, 41 patients with head-and-neck cancers were enrolled in a prospective salivary function study. Inverse-planning intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) was used to treat 27 patients, and forward-planning three-dimensional radiation therapy in 14. To avoid potential bias in data interpretation, only patients whose submandibular glands received greater than 50 Gy were eligible. Attempts were made to spare the superficial lobe of the parotid glands to avoid underdosing tumor targets in the parapharyngeal space; however, the entire parotid volume was used to compute dose-volume histograms (DVHs) for this analysis. DVHs were computed for each gland separately. Parotid function was assessed objectively by measuring stimulated and unstimulated saliva flow before and 6 months after the completion of radiation therapy. Measurements were converted to flow rate (mL/min) and normalized relative to that before treatment. The corresponding quality-of-life (QOL) outcome was assessed by five questions regarding the patient's oral discomfort and eating/speaking problems.


We observed a correlation between parotid mean dose and the fractional reduction of stimulated saliva output at 6 months after the completion of radiation therapy. We further examined whether the functional outcome could be modeled as a function of dose. Two models were found to describe the dose-response data well. The first model assumed that each parotid gland is comprised of multiple independent parallel functional subunits (corresponding to computed tomography voxels) and that each gland contributes equally to overall flow, and that saliva output decreases exponentially as a quadratic function of irradiation dose to each voxel. The second approach uses the equivalent uniform dose (EUD) metrics, which assumes loss of salivary function with increase in EUD for each parotid gland independently. The analysis suggested that the mean dose to each parotid gland is a reasonable indicator for the functional outcome of each gland. The corresponding exponential coefficient was 0.0428/Gy (95% confidence interval: 0.01, 0.09). The QOL questions on eating/speaking function were significantly correlated with stimulated and unstimulated saliva flow at 6 months. In a multivariate analysis, a toxicity score derived from the model based on radiation dose to the parotid gland was found to be the sole significant predictive factor for xerostomia. Neither radiation technique (IMRT vs. non-IMRT) nor chemotherapy (yes or no) independently influenced the functional outcome of the salivary glands.


Sparing of the parotid glands translates into objective and subjective improvement of both xerostomia and QOL scores in patients with head-and-neck cancers receiving radiation therapy. Modeling results suggest an exponential relationship between saliva flow reduction and mean parotid dose for each gland. We found that the stimulated saliva flow at 6 months after treatment is reduced exponentially, for each gland independently, at a rate of approximately 4% per Gy of mean parotid dose.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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