An entirely new organ has been discovered — and it’s inside our heads.
Oncologists at the Netherlands Cancer Institute were baffled to make the discovery while using a new type of scan as part of their research into patients with head and neck cancer.
They were using positron emission tomography/computed tomography with prostate-specific membrane antigen ligands (PSMA PET/CT) scans, known to be an effective way to track the spread of prostate cancer around the body.
The patients are injected with radioactive glucose before the scan, which highlights any tumours within the patient by glowing brightly.
But the team kept noticing that two areas in each patient’s head kept unexpectedly lighting up during the scans.
All of the 100 people involved in the scan were shown to have these same bright spots.
Eventually the oncologists realised they had found an entirely new organ.
The exciting discovery, described in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology, is a set of salivary glands – predominantly mucous glands with multiple draining ducts – located in the back of the nasopharynx.
“People have three sets of large salivary glands, but not there,” study author and radiation oncologist Wouter Vogel said.
“As far as we knew, the only salivary or mucous glands in the nasopharynx are microscopically small, and up to 1,000 are evenly spread out throughout the mucosa. So imagine our surprise when we found these.”
The team confirmed the discovery with colleagues at Amsterdam UMC using cadavers, and have now named the organ the “tubarial glands”.
They believe the glands could be a potential cause of complications for patients undergoing radiation, including dysphagia which means difficulty swallowing.
Knowing about the existence of the glands could improve cancer treatment as oncologists will know to avoid the area and prevent such complications.
“Radiation therapy can damage the salivary glands, which may lead to complications,” Dr Vogel said.
“Patients may have trouble eating, swallowing, or speaking, which can be a real burden.”
The oncologists examined 723 patients who had undergone radiation treatment in this area of the head. They discovered that the more radiation the tubarial glands are exposed to, the more complications the patient experienced after therapy.
“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,” Dr Vogel explained.
“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 less side effects which will benefit their overall quality of life after treatment.”