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Explained: What is the new organ scientists have discovered in the throat?

23rd October, 2020 Science and Technology

Context: Researchers from the Netherlands Cancer Institute have discovered a new location of salivary glands.

  • It is good news for patients with head and neck tumours as radiation oncologists will be able to bypass this area to avoid any complications during treatment

So, what exactly have the researchers found?

  • When researchers who investigate the side-effects of radiation on the head and neck were studying a new type of scan as part of their research work, they found two “unexpected” areas that lit up in the back of the nasopharynx.
  • These areas looked similar to known major salivary glands.
  • The salivary gland system in the human body has three paired major glands and over 1,000 minor glands that are spread throughout the mucosa.
  • These glands produce saliva necessary for swallowing, digestion, tasting, mastication and dental hygiene.
  • Researchers found a bilateral structure at the back of the nasopharynx and these glands had characteristics of salivary glands.
  • These glands would qualify as the fourth pair of major salivary glands.

Why are these glands being discovered only now?

  • Location of these glands is at a poorly accessible anatomical location under the base of the skull, which is an area that can only be visualised using nasal endoscopy.
  • Conventional imaging techniques such as a CT scan, MRI and ultrasound have not allowed the visualisation of these glands.

What is the purpose of these glands?

  • The physiological function of the glands is to moisten and lubricate the nasopharynx and the oropharynx, but this interpretation needs to be confirmed with additional research.

What is the significance of this finding?

  • Researchers believe that their discovery is potentially good news for some cancer patients with head and neck cancers.
  • Patients with head and neck cancers and tumours in the tongue or the throat are treated with radiation therapy that can damage the new salivary glands, whose location was not previously known.
  • With their discovery, radiation oncologists will be able to circumvent these areas and protect them from the side effects of radiation which can lead to complications such as trouble speaking, swallowing and speaking.
  • Some patients may even face an increased risk of caries and oral infections that can significantly impact their life.
  • The major salivary glands whose location is already known are regarded as organs-at-risk while conducting radiation therapy and need to be spared.