A New Organ Within Us: Nasopharyngeal Salivary Glands

How the discovery of a new organ can benefit the lives of cancer patients.

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The Netherlands Cancer Institute

Newly introduced PSMA-PET imaging allowed scientists at the Netherlands Cancer Institute to find a pair of macroscopic salivary gland structures in the nasopharynx region.

In the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NCI), researchers unexpectedly had discovered a new organ in the back of the human head. This discovery and published study are truly astonishing, as no discovery of this magnitude has occurred in centuries. Researchers used a new special imaging technology called PSMA PET/CT, also known as prostate-specific antigen membrane imaging, which was developed for tumor development in patients often with prostate cancer.

According to the recent study, our body has two previously unnoticed and clinically significant nasopharyngeal salivary glands. Saving these newly-identified tubal glands will provide an ability to enhance the quality of life in patients undergoing radiotherapy.

To further describe these findings, it is detailed that the organs are macroscopic bilateral pairs of salivary glands in our throats. They are made up of acini and macroscopic mucosal ducts, which left the scientists with a larger question of whether or not these pairs of salivary glands are a major organ in the human salivary gland system made up of three major glands and hundreds of minor glands. 

“This discovery is huge and it is so interesting to see what new things we can learn about ourselves through newly introduced technology. The FDA had recently just approved of the PSMA PET scans in December 2020, so there is so much further research that can be done now in the United States using this technology,” said Randy Bedoya, a student at the Academy of Finance & Enterprise in Queens, New York.

In 100 persons treated for prostate cancer, as well as two dissected bodies, the researchers in the Netherlands were searching for new organ treatment. Imaging techniques like ultrasounds, CT scans, or MRIs are unable to see the glands. The study’s authors took the function of the tubular glands in the moisturization and lubrication of the nasopharynx (connected to the soft palate) and the oropharynx (connected to the tongue and throat). All 100 people were confirmed of having these pairs of salivary glands.

“This project definitely has its significance, as young scientists who are interested in getting involved in learning more about these new glands should look at different branches in science. We should be bringing together many different communities of scientists to better understand these new organs, such as looking into the microbiomes of which exist in the salivary glands,” said Dr. John J. McGowan, the former Deputy Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

The NCI’s findings will enable them to work towards the goal of bettering the lives of thousands of head and neck cancer patients around the world.

The implications of the study could benefit patients with cancer in the head and neck. Radiotherapies used to treat such tumors can damage other salivary glands, which can cause dry mouth and trouble with swallowing, speaking, and eating. The next step is exploring the treatment implications, including how to save the new glands from the effects of radiation treatment.

“This project definitely has its significance, as young scientists who are interested in getting involved in learning more about these new glands should look at different branches in science. We should be bringing together many different communities of scientists to better understand these new organs, such as looking into the microbiomes of which exist in the salivary glands,” said Dr. John J. McGowan, the former Deputy Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

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