Check any contemporary anatomy book and you’ll see three major types of salivary glands: one near the ears, another below the jaw and another under the tongue. Salivary glands produce saliva to swallow, digest and taste. A research team in the Netherlands discovered a pair of large salivary glands called tubarial glands hidden in the nook where the nasal cavity meets the throat. The glands are probably being used to moisten and lubricate the upper parts of the throat. This surprise anatomical finding occurred while the team was examining prostate cancer patients. The research was published in the journal ‘Radiotherapy and Oncology’.
Surprise! A body part hidden away in our skulls
“Now, we think there is a fourth,” declared lead author Dr Matthijs H. Valstar, a surgeon and researcher at the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI) told ‘The New York Times’. “It seems like they may be onto something,” commented Dr Valerie Fitzhugh, a pathologist at Rutgers University in the United States who wasn’t involved in the research. “If it’s real, it could change the way we look at disease in this region.” “We thought it wasn’t possible to discover this in 2020,” Dr Valstar told ‘CNN’. “It’s important it’s replicated and it should be done with different series of patients. It’s important to have confirmation of new medical findings.” Joy Reidenberg, a professor of anatomy at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, noted that numerous significant scientific discoveries “come as a surprise — an incidental finding.” “Luckily, these researchers were tuned into the data, and were anatomically savvy enough to note the unusual brightness in a region that was not thought to contain any salivary glands,” continued Prof. Reidenberg, who wasn’t involved in the study. “As the famous (late French biologist) Louis Pasteur once said: ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’” With so much sophisticated equipment, how is it possible to miss such an entity all these years? About 300 years, to be exact. Standard imaging techniques like the computerised tomography scan, magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound can’t see these glands. The researchers used a new type of scan called the PSMA PET/CT on 100 patients because it provided the high sensitivity and specificity required to spot them. Next, they studied these people’s head and neck scans. All had a set of the glands. The paper questioned if the tubarial glands were an entirely new organ or part of the salivary gland organ system. “These findings support the identification of the tubarial glands as a new anatomical and functional entity.”
Good news for patients with head and neck tumours
Radiotherapy can damage salivary glands. Oncologists will be able to avoid the area to prevent some cancer treatment side effects. “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,” concluded study author Wouter V. Vogel, a radiation oncologist at NKI, in a news release. “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.”
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