What is the new organ scientists have discovered in the throat?

The researchers believe that these glands would qualify as the fourth pair of major salivary glands. (The Netherlands Cancer Institute)

Researchers from the Netherlands Cancer Institute have discovered a new location of salivary glands, which, they believe, is good news for patients with head and neck tumours as radiation oncologists will be able to bypass this area to avoid any complications during treatment.

The researchers have described their findings in a research published in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology last week.

So, what exactly have the researchers found?

When researchers who investigate the side-effects of radiation on the head and neck were studying a new type of scan as part of their research work, they found two “unexpected” areas that lit up in the back of the nasopharynx. These areas looked similar to known major salivary glands.

The salivary gland system in the human body has three paired major glands and over 1,000 minor glands that are spread throughout the mucosa. These glands produce saliva necessary for swallowing, digestion, tasting, mastication and dental hygiene. When researchers were studying scans from about 100 people, they found a bilateral structure at the back of the nasopharynx and these glands had characteristics of salivary glands.

Researchers have proposed the name “tubarial glands” for their discovery. Even so, it is not clear yet if these glands will be classified as a conglomerate of minor glands, as a major gland, a separate organ or a new part of an organ system.

The researchers believe that these glands would qualify as the fourth pair of major salivary glands. The proposed name is based on their anatomical location, the other three glands are called parotid, submandibular and sublingual.

Why are these glands being discovered only now?

Researchers note that the location of these glands is at a poorly accessible anatomical location under the base of the skull, which is an area that can only be visualised using nasal endoscopy.

Further, conventional imaging techniques such as a CT scan, MRI and ultrasound have not allowed the visualisation of these glands. For the scans done on the 100 patients, a new type of scan called the PSMA PET/CT scan was used, which was able to provide the high sensitivity and specificity required to detect these glands.

What is the purpose of these glands?

So far, researchers suspect that the physiological function of the glands is to moisten and lubricate the nasopharynx and the oropharynx, but this interpretation needs to be confirmed with additional research, they have said.

What is the significance of this finding?

Researchers believe that their discovery is potentially good news for some cancer patients with head and neck cancers. Patients with head and neck cancers and tumours in the tongue or the throat are treated with radiation therapy that can damage the new salivary glands, whose location was not previously known.

Now, with their discovery, radiation oncologists will be able to circumvent these areas and protect them from the side effects of radiation which can lead to complications such as trouble speaking, swallowing and speaking. Some patients may even face an increased risk of caries and oral infections that can significantly impact their life.

The major salivary glands whose location is already known are regarded as organs-at-risk while conducting radiation therapy and need to be spared, researchers note.

“For most patients, it should technically be possible to avoid delivering radiation to this newly discovered location of the salivary gland system in the same way we try to spare known glands,” radiation oncologist Wouter Vogel was quoted as saying in a press release.

The next step is for researchers to find out how to avoid delivering radiation to these newly discovered glands so that patients experience less side effects and lead a better quality of life.

Source: The Indian Express

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