Scientists in the Netherlands have discovered a potential new organ in the human throat that they stumbled upon while carrying out research on prostate cancer, Livescience reported. Researchers at the Netherlands Cancer Institute have identified a set of salivary glands deep in the upper part of the throat and have named them “tubarial salivary glands”.
According to a study published in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology, the researchers confirmed the presence of the glands after examining at least 100 patients. The discovery may be important for cancer treatment. So far, this nasopharynx region — behind the nose — was not thought to host anything but microscopic, diffuse, salivary glands.
The newly discovered glands are about 1.5 inches (3.9 centimeters) in length on average and are located over a piece of cartilage called the torus tubarius, Livescience reported. According to the researchers, the glands probably lubricate and moisten the upper throat behind the nose and mouth.
Until now, there were three known large salivary glands in humans: one under the tongue, one under the jaw and one at the back of the jaw, behind the cheek.
“Beyond those, perhaps a thousand microscopic salivary glands are scattered throughout the mucosal tissue of the throat and mouth. So, imagine our surprise when we found these,” study co-author and Netherlands Cancer Institute radiation oncologist Wouter Vogel said in a statement.
The new organ was discovered while scientists were studying prostate cancer cells using PSMA PET-CT technology — a combination of CT scans and positron emission tomography (PET) — which is good in detecting salivary gland tissues. In this technique, a radioactive “tracer” is injected into the patient that binds to the protein PSMA, which is elevated in prostate cancer cells.
Doctors using radiotherapy for treating cancers in the head and neck try to avoid the main salivary glands as damaging them could make eating, speaking or swallowing difficult for patients, Vogel said.
However, in this case, the newly discovered glands were getting hit by radiation as doctors were not aware of their existence in the human body. Thus, the new discovery may result in fewer side effects for cancer patients.
“Our next step is to find out how we can best spare these new glands and in which patients. If we can do this, patients may experience less side effects, which will benefit their overall quality of life after treatment,” Vogel said.