A working group led by Matthijs Valstar and Wouter Vogel of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam discovered a previously unknown organ in the throat during an imaging procedure (PSMA PET/CT). This method is usually only used to visualize prostate tumors. Not only was a new organ discovered, but also a new form of diagnosis for head and neck tumors was described. The research results were recently presented in the journal “Radiotherapy & Oncology”.
One might expect that by now all organs of our body have been discovered. But a Dutch cancer research team shows that this is not the case. They found a previously undescribed organ far back in the nasopharynx. This organ consists of two previously unknown paired salivary glands. The researchers call them tubular glands.
When testing the new diagnostic method, the scientists were amazed when they identified two areas at the very back of the nasopharynx that look similar to the known salivary glands. “People have three sets of large salivary glands, but not there,” Vogel emphasized in a press release from the Institute. The only known salivary or mucous glands in the nasopharynx are microscopically small and evenly distributed over the entire mucous membrane. This has never been documented before.
All 100 people examined with a PSMA-PET/CT scan had a set of the new organs in the throat. “The new areas also showed characteristics of the salivary glands,” Valstar explains. This was confirmed by tissue samples from two human bodies. “We call them tubarial glands, which refers to their anatomical location,” says Valstar.
Discovered by chance
According to the study, the new organ may also be the cause of complications in radiation treatments for head and neck cancer, including tumors in the throat or tongue. “Radiation therapy can damage the salivary glands, which can lead to complications,” stresses Vogel, who is himself a radiotherapist. The treatment may cause difficulties in eating, swallowing or speaking.
In collaboration with colleagues from the University Hospital Groningen, the researchers analyzed data from 723 patients who had undergone such radiation treatment. Their conclusion: the more radiation was delivered to the new organ, the more complications the patients experienced. This type of complication is also known from the known salivary glands.
The researchers recommend avoiding irradiation of the newly discovered site of the salivary gland system – just as it is practiced with the known glands. “Our next step is to find out how and in which patients we can best protect these new glands,” says Vogel. This could lead to fewer side effects from radiation treatments for certain types of cancer. (vb)
New salivary glands discovered in the throat
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