The human body never ceases to amaze.
Over 160 years ago, “Gray’s Anatomy” author Dr. Henry Gray compiled the most comprehensive text on the human body. Yet, after dozens of revisions and new editions, doctors are still making discoveries about how we’re built.
One such finding by researchers at the Netherlands Cancer Institute points to a potential fourth set of salivary glands, nestled in a space where the nasal cavity meets the throat.
If the new organs are confirmed, it will be the first in about three centuries, the Times reported.
Previously, doctors understood there to be just three sets of salivary gland pairs: near each ear, below the jaw and under the tongue.
Evidence of the previously unidentified organs was published last month in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology, despite the fact that study author and surgeon Dr. Matthijs Valstar had set out to study prostate cancer.
He and his colleagues spotted the unfamiliar parts while studying head scans created in uniquely high detail. There, in the center of the scanned skull, were two narrow tissue structures situated just over the eustachian tubes, which connect the ears to the throat.
Further study using a dissected cadaver revealed that the pair of organs were structurally similar to the salivary glands located under the tongue. They also appeared to connect to a duct, suggesting saliva flow.
“The location is not very accessible, and you need very sensitive imaging to detect it,” said radiation oncologist Dr. Wouter Vogel, who co-authored the study.
Vogel also pointed to anecdotal evidence from brain cancer patients, who are known to suffer chronic dry mouth following radiation therapy. Salivary glands are very delicate tissues, the doctors explained, and ordinarily avoided during cancer treatment to prevent permanent damage. Without knowing these glands existed, “nobody ever tried to spare them,” said Vogel.
However, some of their peers are hesitant to label them true organs. Dr. Alvand Hassankhani, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study, pointed out that the salivary gland network is comprised of approximately 1,000 “minor” glands. He suggested to the Times that the new imaging technique may have instead stumbled onto a better way of detecting them.
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