Scientists in the Netherlands say they have identified a potential new organ in the human throat.
Researchers say the newly-found set of salivary glands are likely being used for moistening and lubricating the upper parts of the throat, and that they stumbled upon them while carrying out research on prostate cancer.
The study was published in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology by a team of researchers including those from the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NCI).
The research said that the throat in humans contains “previously overlooked bilateral macroscopic salivary glands” which the scientists named as “tubarial glands”. The researchers examined at least 100 patients to confirm their findings and found that all of them had the glands.
According to Sky News, the new glands were found while scientists were scanning for prostate cancer cells using PSMA PET-CT – a combination of CT scans and positron emission tomography (PET) scans.
In this technique, the doctors inject into the patient a radioactive tracer that binds well to the protein PSMA, which is elevated in prostate cancer cells. This combination of scans is also good in detecting salivary gland tissues, also high in PSMA.
Doctors using radiotherapy for treatment of cancers in the head and neck try to avoid the main salivary glands, as damaging them could make eating, speaking or swallowing difficult for patients. But these newly discovered glands were still getting hit by radiation, as doctors were not aware of their existence, resulting in patients feeling unexplained side effects.
The study said that sparing these glands in patients receiving radiotherapy may provide an opportunity to improve their quality of life.
Dr Wouter V Vogel of the NCI, one of the researchers involved in the study, emphasised that their next step is to ascertain how these glands can be spared from radiation.
Dr Vogel told the New York Times the glands had remained undetected because of their location at the base of the skull. They are also small, he said, though visible to the human eye, so were only picked up by very sensitive imaging technology.