Scientists have discovered a new organ: a collection of salivary glands located deep in the top of the throat.
This region of the nasopharynx – behind the nose – was not thought to harbor anything other than microscopic and diffuse salivary glands. The newly discovered set measures around 3.9 centimeters on average. Because of their location on a piece of cartilage called the torus tubarius, the discoverers of these new glands called them the tubal salivary glands. The glands likely lubricate and moisturize the upper throat behind the nose and mouth, the researchers wrote online on Sep 23 in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology.
The discovery was accidental. Researchers at the Dutch Cancer Institute used a combination of computed tomography and positron emission tomography (PET) called PSMA PET-CT to look at prostate cancer. During the PSMA-PET-CT scan, doctors inject the patient with a radioactive “tracer”. This tracer binds well to the protein PSMA, which is elevated in prostate cancer cells. Clinical studies have shown that the PSMA-PET-CT scan is better than conventional imaging at detecting metastatic prostate cancer.
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PSMA-PET-CT scanning has also been found to be very effective in detecting salivary gland tissue, which is also rich in PSMA. Up to now, three large salivary glands were known to man: one under the tongue, one under the jaw, and one on the back of the jaw behind the cheek. In addition, perhaps a thousand microscopic salivary glands are dotted around the mucous tissue of the throat and mouth, said Wouter Vogel, co-author of the study and radiation oncologist for the Dutch Cancer Institute, in a statement.
“So imagine our surprise when we found this,” said Vogel.
To confirm the finding, Vogel and his colleagues photographed 100 patients (including 99 men due to an emphasis on prostate cancer) and found that all had the newly discovered glands. They also dissected this area of the nasopharynx from two bodies from a human body donation program and found that the new area consisted of mucous gland tissue and ducts draining into the nasopharynx.
The discovery could be important in the treatment of cancer. Doctors who use head and neck rays to treat cancer try to avoid exposing the salivary glands to radiation, Vogel said, because damage to these glands can affect quality of life.
“Patients can have difficulty eating, swallowing, or speaking, which can be a real burden,” he said.
But because no one knew about the salivary glands of the fallopian tubes, no one tried to avoid radiation in this area. The researchers examined the records of more than 700 cancer patients treated at the University Hospital in Groningen and found that the more radiation patients admitted to the area of the unknown glands, the more side effects reported from their treatment. The new discovery could therefore lead to fewer side effects for cancer patients.
“Our next step is to find out how we can best protect these new glands and in which patients,” said Vogel. “If we can do this, patients may experience fewer side effects, which has a positive effect on their general quality of life after treatment. “”
Originally posted on Live Science.
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