It’s 2020, and many may think humans learned everything there is to know about the human body, but recently, scientists discovered a secret organ lurking in the middle of the head.
It’s hard to imagine that there is a part of the human body that has gone unnoticed by doctors after centuries of medical research.
Surprisingly, that is exactly what a group of medical scientists from the Netherlands believe. They said that they have discovered a pair of previously overlooked salivary glands deep inside the human head, where the nasal passages meet the back of the throat.
Modern anatomy books show only three types of salivary glands, a set near the ears, another below the jaw and a third under the tongue.
"Now, we think there is a fourth," the study's lead author Matthijs H. Valstar, a surgeon in the department of head and neck oncology and surgery at The Netherlands Cancer Institute, told the New York Times.
The discovery was accidental. The medical researchers first came across the body part, which they propose naming tubarial glands, during a scan looking for tumor growth.
The glands cannot be seen by conventional methods of medical imaging such as ultrasound, CT scans, and MRI, the study author said.
Researchers at the Netherland Cancer Institute were using an advanced and new type of scan called PSMA PET-CT, which is used to detect the spread of prostate cancer. PSMA PET-CT scanning also happens to be very good at detecting salivary gland tissue.
The scientists then looked at scans of the head and neck of a further 100 individuals they were treating for prostate cancer and dissected two cadavers, one male and one female. They all had the set.
It was a matter of debate whether the tubarial glands were a completely new organ or could be considered part of the salivary gland organ system, the study added.
The glands could be newly discovered, "but it is difficult to exclude that these might represent groups of minor salivary glands," Dr. Valerie Fitzhugh, the interim chair of pathology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, told CNN. Fitzhugh wasn't involved in the study.
“Because the study concentrated on a small number of patients who were mostly male and used specific rather than standard tests,” she added, “examination of more women and healthier patients would allow for better data.”
Overall, there is "still much to learn about the human body," Fitzhugh said. “Technology is allowing us to make these discoveries. This might be the first of some exciting discoveries within the body."
No matter how the glands are described, the authors said their discovery had clinical implications, especially for patients with head and neck cancer, including tumors in the throat or tongue.
“Doctors using radiation on the head and neck to treat cancer try to avoid irradiating the salivary glands,” said Dr. Wouter Vogel, a radiation oncologist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and an author on the study, in a statement for MedicalXpress. “Damage to these glands can impact quality of life. Patients may have trouble eating, swallowing or speaking, which can be a real burden.”
But because no one knew about the tubarial salivary glands, no one tried to avoid radiation in that region. The researchers examined records from more than 700 cancer patients treated at the University Medical Center Groningen and found that the more radiation the patients had received in the area of the unknown glands, the more side effects they reported from their treatment. The new discovery could thus translate to fewer side effects for cancer patients.
"Our next step is to find out how we can best spare these new glands and in which patients," Vogel said. "If we can do this, patients may experience less side effects, which will benefit their overall quality of life after treatment."