Scientists in the Netherlands have accidentally discovered a new organ in the human body while carrying out research on prostate cancer.
As per a Livescience report, the researchers have discovered a set of salivary glands set 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 of the Netherlands Cancer Institute confirmed the presence of the glands after examining at least 100 patients.
The ‘accidental’ discovery was made when the researchers were using a combination of CT scans and positron emission tomography (PET) scans called PSMA PET-CT to study prostate cancer.
The newly discovered set of glands is about 1.5 inches (3.9 centimetres) in length on average and is located in the nasopharynx region.
So far, this nasopharynx region — behind the nose — was not thought to host anything but microscopic, diffuse, salivary glands.
“Because of their location over a piece of cartilage called the torus tubarius, the discoverers of these new glands have dubbed them the tubarial salivary glands. The glands probably lubricate and moisten the upper throat behind the nose and mouth,” the researchers 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.
“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.
“So, imagine our surprise when we found these,” Vogel said.
To confirm the discovery, Vogel and his colleagues imaged 100 patients (99 of the men due to the focus on prostate cancer) and 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.
Vogel said that the discovery could be important for cancer treatment as doctors using radiation on the head and neck to treat cancer try to avoid irradiating the salivary glands 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.
“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 fewer side effects, which will benefit their overall quality of life after treatment,” Vogel said.