In September 2020, doctors in the Netherlands stumbled upon previously unknown tubarial salivary glands located beneath the nose. This unexpected discovery holds promise for enhancing cancer treatment, as scientists work to protect these glands during radiation therapy, potentially improving treatment outcomes.
By this point, you might expect that we would have a deep understanding of our bodies and be experts in our biology within the scientific community.
Yet, it appears that's not the case. There's still so much more to discover, even about the very body we inhabit every day.
I'm talking about stumbling upon an entirely new organ, not just a small part of it.
That's exactly what a team of Dutch doctors did in September 2020 when, quite accidentally, they found out that humans have a second organ during their research on prostate cancer.
Surprisingly, this hidden organ was right under our noses—or more accurately, directly beneath them—all along.
Indeed, it's located directly beneath the face, right inside our own heads.
Given that the body has two separate ends, you might be curious how a team researching prostate cancer stumbled upon an organ in the human brain at this stage.
The trouble began when cancer researchers injected patients with radioactive glucose, causing tumors to light up on CT and PET scans.
The team from the Netherlands Cancer Institute noticed that two areas in the patients' heads were glowing intensely, leading them to deduce that these were a cluster of hidden salivary glands.
The newfound organ was christened the tubarial salivary glands, named after its discoverers. Specifically, these glands are situated in the crevice where the neck and nasal cavity intersect behind the nose.
According to its purpose, this accidentally discovered organ lubricates and moisturizes the region at the back of the throat, behind the mouth and nose.
The scientists were astonished to discover these glands and couldn't fathom how they had remained unnoticed for so long.
According to Dr. Wouter Vogel, a radiation oncologist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, these glands stayed hidden because they're "not very accessible" and need "extremely sensitive imaging" to be detected.
He said: "People have three sets of large salivary glands, but not there."
"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."
Discovering this organ might help us understand why patients often experience dry mouths and difficulty swallowing after undergoing radiation therapy.
Because people were unaware of these glands, Dr. Vogel mentioned that "nobody ever sought to spare them." A simple misguided treatment could lead to irreversible damage to this organ.
Although the discovery was accidental, researchers anticipate that their findings could eventually alleviate the challenges cancer patients face after radiation therapy. They believe the tubarial salivary glands play a significant role in many complications related to treatment.
Now that they know about this organ, the "next step" is figuring out how to conduct radiation therapy without putting it at risk.
Patients undergoing radiation therapy might enjoy longer lives and better quality of life if specialists can find a solution to this challenge.