How research for prostrate cancer lead to the accidental discovery of a previously overlooked entity

2020 was a roller coaster of emotions, jam packed with unexpected turns and twists. In fact, those days it seemed as though anything is possible – even the discovery of a new organ! It may be difficult to imagine there is a part of the human body that has gone unnoticed by doctors even after centuries of medical research, yet scientists in the Netherlands possibly discovered a new organ in the human throat. 

While conducting research on prostate cancer at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, researchers stumbled upon a set of salivary glands hidden deep in the upper part of the throat. Until now, this nasopharynx region – behind the nose -was not thought to host anything but microscopic, diffuse, salivary glands. In fact, located over a piece of cartilage called the torus tubarius, the mass was only identified when doctors used a new, advanced method of medical scanning called PSMA PET.

PASMA PET is shorthand for prostate-specific membrane antigen using positron emission tomography. Without the scientific jargon, it is essentially a type of medical imaging (like ultrasounds, and CT scans) that has been used to detect the spread of prostate cancer. In this technique, a radioactive “tracer” is injected into the patient that binds to the protein PSMA, which is elevated in prostate cancer cells.

The scan was able to pick up the gland, which appeared as two areas with unusual brightness, and immediately piqued the scientist’s interest. These areas looked similar to known major salivary glands. Until now, there were only 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. 

Overview of the salivary gland tissues as seen in PSMA PET/CT scans depicts the known major salivary glands and an unknown structure (indicated by arrows) in the nasopharynx showing similar imaging characteristics. (Source: CNN)

The study has been published in the journal ‘Radiotherapy and Oncology’. It details how the researchers confirmed the presence of the glands after examining at least 100 patients, including cadavers. Validity of the discovery being classified as an organ is also up for debate, as it could easily be considered as a conglomerate of minor or major glands, a separate organ, or new part of an organ system. However, until there is better data, it is difficult to pinpoint what this entity is exactly and how it can potentially help cancer patients. 

For now, scientists have proposed the name “tubarial glands”. The next step for researchers is to find out how to avoid delivering radiation to these newly discovered glands so that patients can experience less side effects which will benefit their overall quality of life after treatment.

References

  1.  Hunt, K. (2020, October 21). Scientists discover possible new organ in the human throat. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2020/10/21/health/new-organ-throat-scn-wellness/index.html
  1. “Tubarial Glands: New Organ Discovered in Human Body | Anatomy, Medicine | Sci-News.com.” Breaking Science News | Sci-News.com, www.sci-news.com/medicine/tubarial-glands-08972.html. Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.

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