The role of bitter receptors in cancer

Receptors as targets for chemotherapeutics

A joint press release of the University of Vienna/Faculty of Chemistry and the Leibniz Institute for Food Systems Biology at the Technical University of Munich (LSB)

Freising / Vienna, December 03, 2021 - Bitter taste receptors do not only support humans in tasting. They are also found on cancer cells. A team led by Veronika Somoza from the Faculty of Chemistry at the University of Vienna and the German Leibniz Institute for Food Systems Biology at the Technical University of Munich has investigated the role they play there. For this purpose, the scientists compiled and evaluated extensive scientific data. Their results suggest that bitter taste receptors should also be considered as additional targets for chemotherapeutic agents in the future and should be investigated in this regard. The systematic review recently appeared in the journal Cancers.

Humans have 25 different types of functional bitter taste receptors. These are found on our tongue, where they facilitate the taste perception of bitter tasting compounds. In addition, there are increasing findings that cells of extra-oral organs also have such receptors. Since we do not "taste" with these receptors expressed in non-gustatory tissues, the question arises as to what functions they fulfill there. Some of this is already known. For example, certain bitter taste receptors in gastric cells are involved in the regulation of gastric acid secretion or play a role in the release of antimicrobial substances in cells of the intestinal and the respiratory tract.

Bitter receptors are also found on cancer cells

"The new findings suggest that bitter taste receptors have physiological functions that could be used to prevent or treat diseases," reports study author Agnes Mistlberger-Reiner, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Physiological Chemistry at the University of Vienna. This also applies to cancer, she said, since bitter taste receptors are also present and functionally active in cancer cells.

To obtain an overview of the current state of knowledge on the topic of "bitter taste receptors and cancer," the team from the University of Vienna, the Leibniz Institute for Food Systems Biology at the Technical University of Munich and the Medical University of Vienna conducted a systematic search in PubMed and GoogleScholar. The resulting systematic review considers both studies that investigated the relationships between taste perception of bitter compounds, diet, and the incidence of certain cancers, and those that explored the role of bitter receptors in carcinogenesis at the molecular level.

Individual taste perception, diet and cancer

"As our data analysis shows, no connection has been proven so far between genetically determined differences in the perception of bitter compounds, the diet and the development of cancer," says Veronika Somoza, who is deputy director of the Department of Physiological Chemistry as well as director of the Leibniz Institute in Freising. Furthermore, the study found that in many cases, bitter taste receptor gene expression is downregulated in cancer cells and tissues, meaning fewer gene products were detectable.

"Conversely, there is evidence that overexpression of these receptor genes and targeted activation of bitter taste receptors stimulate cellular anti-cancer mechanisms," added first author and PhD student Sofie Zehentner. These include effects such as reduced cell division and migration as well as an increased apoptosis rate, i.e. an increase in programmed cell death of cancer cells.

"There is much to suggest that bitter taste receptors are involved in cellular mechanisms of cancer, making them interesting targets for the development of new therapeutics. Therefore, we intend to further explore the functions of bitter taste receptors in the future," said Veronika Somoza.

The review article is the result of a project funded by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF), in which the scientists around Veronika Somoza are investigating the extent to which the aroma compound homoeriodictyol is effective against taste disorders in cancer patients.

Publication: Zehentner S, Reiner AT, Grimm Ch, Somoza V (2021) Cancers, DOI: 10.3390/cancers13235891. The role of bitter taste receptors in cancer: a systematic review

Scientific Contact:

Prof. Dr. Veronika Somoza
Leibniz Institute for Food Systems Biology
at the Technical University of Munich
Lise-Meitner-Str. 34, 85354 Freising / Germany
Email: v.somoza.leibniz-lsb(at)


University of Vienna, Faculty of Chemistry
Department of Physiological Chemistry
Althanstraße 14, 1090 Vienna / Austria
Phone: +43-664-60277-70610

Press Contact at LSB:

Dr. Gisela Olias
Leibniz Institute for Food Systems Biology
at the Technical University of Munich
Knowledge transfer, Press & Public Relations
Phone: +49 8161 71-2980
Email: g.olias.leibniz-lsb(at)

Press Contact at the University of Vienna:

Mag. Alexandra Frey
Pressebüro und stv. Pressesprecherin
University of Vienna
1010 - Wien, Universitätsring 1
Phone: +43-1-4277-175 33
Phone: +43-664-60277-175 33
Email: alexandra.frey(at)

Information about the LSB

The Leibniz Institute for Food Systems Biology at the Technical University of Munich (LSB) comprises a new, unique research profile at the interface of Food Chemistry & Biology, Chemosensors & Technology, and Bioinformatics & Machine Learning. As this profile has grown far beyond the previous core discipline of classical food chemistry, the institute spearheads the development of a food systems biology.  

Its primary research objective is to develop new approaches for the sustainable production of sufficient quantities of food whose biologically active effector molecule profiles are geared to health and nutritional needs, but also to the sensory preferences of consumers. To do so, the institute explores the complex networks of sensorically relevant effector molecules along the entire food production chain with a focus on making their effects systemically understandable and predictable in the long term.

The LSB is a member of the Leibniz Association, which connects 96 independent research institutions. Their orientation ranges from the natural sciences, engineering and environmental sciences through economics, spatial and social sciences to the humanities. Leibniz Institutes devote themselves to social, economic and ecological issues. They conduct knowledge-oriented and application-oriented research, also in the overlapping Leibniz research networks, are or maintain scientific infrastructures and offer research-based services. The Leibniz Association focuses on knowledge transfer, especially with the Leibniz Research Museums. It advises and informs politics, science, business and the public. Leibniz institutions maintain close cooperation with universities - among others, in the form of the Leibniz Science Campuses, industry and other partners in Germany and abroad. They are subject to a transparent and independent review process. Due to their national significance, the federal government and the federal states jointly fund the institutes of the Leibniz Association. The Leibniz Institutes employ around 21,000 people, including almost 12,000 scientists. The entire budget of all the institutes is more than two billion euros.

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