Scientists have come up with a new discovery - a new organ in the human body. According to the researchers at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, a set of salivary glands that set deep in the upper part of the throat have been discovered. In a statement, study co-author and Netherlands Cancer Institute radiation oncologist Wouter Vogel said 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.
This nasopharynx region — behind the nose — was not thought to host anything but microscopic, diffuse, salivary glands; but the newly discovered set are about 1.5 inches (3.9 centimeters) in length on average.
According to what the researchers wrote online in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology, the new discovery has been dubbed as tubarial salivary glands, that probably lubricate and moisten the upper throat behind the nose and mouth.
Researchers at the Netherlands Cancer Institute were using a combination of CT scans and positron emission tomography (PET) scans called PSMA PET-CT to study prostate cancer. In PSMA PET-CT scanning, doctors inject a radioactive "tracer" into the patient.
This tracer binds well to the protein PSMA, which is elevated in prostate cancer cells. Clinical trials have found that PSMA PET-CT scanning is better than conventional imaging at detecting metastasized prostate cancer.
PSMA PET-CT scanning also happens to be very good at detecting salivary gland tissue, which is also high in PSMA.
Vogel and his colleagues imaged 100 patients (99 of them men due to the focus on prostate cancer) to confirm the discovery. Later, they found that all of them had the newly discovered glands.
They also dissected that nasopharynx region from two cadavers from a human body donation program and found that the newfound region consisted of mucosal gland tissue and ducts draining into the nasopharynx.
The discovery could be important for cancer treatment. Doctors using radiation on the head and neck to treat cancer try to avoid irradiating the salivary glands, Vogel said, because damage to these glands can impact the quality of life.
"Patients may have trouble eating, swallowing or speaking, which can be a real burden," he said.
But because no one knew about the tubarial salivary glands, no one tried to avoid radiation in that region. The researchers examined records from more than 700 cancer patients treated at the University Medical Center Groningen and found that the more radiation the patients had received in the area of the unknown glands, the more side effects they reported from their treatment.
The new discovery could thus translate to fewer side effects for cancer patients.