Scientists May Have Identified a Previously Unknown Spit-Producing Organ in Our Heads

Uncovering the existence of the glands will help oncologists protect them from radiation, improving the quality of life for cancer patients

An anatomical diagram from a textbook published in 1908. It shows a drawing of a man's side profile and a detailed diagram of all the organs, veins and nerves with lines and names branching out from the head.
In addition to the newly discovered pair of glands, the human body has three more large sets and about 1,000 glands scattered throughout the mouth and throat. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Anatomy is the oldest discipline within the field of medicine, and doctors have been dissecting, exploring and documenting the human body since the third century. But even after hundreds of years, researchers are still making new discoveries.

A team of scientists at the Netherlands Cancer Institute discovered a possible new organ—a pair of salivary glands—tucked away where the nasal cavity meets the throat, reports Katherine Wu for the New York Times. If confirmed, this discovery will be the first set of salivary glands revealed in 300 years. The team reported their findings last month in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology.

The team stumbled upon the find while studying high-resolution scans from patients with prostate cancer. They noticed two glands, about two inches in length, discreetly hidden where the ears connect to the throat near the base of the skull. Intrigued, they dissected two cadavers and confirmed the presence of the organ. Then, the researchers imaged 100 patients and found that all of them had the new glands, reports Stephanie Pappas for Live Science.

Accompanying the newly discovered set of salivary glands, the human body has three more large sets: one below the jaw, another beneath the tongue and a third near the ears, reports Lucy Hicks for Science. About 1,000 more minor glands coat the mouth and throat, but they are difficult to locate. The glands collectively produce a quart of saliva each day, which helps people chew their food, swallow and speak; the spit also helps keep the mouth clean and germ-free.

A digital illustration shows the side of a person's face with their internal organs visible in the diagram. The new organ is located at the point where the ears connect to the top of the throat
Researchers imaged the organ while studying prostate and urethral gland cancer, so most of their patients were male. To confirm the discovery, experts say they will need to expand and diversify their sampling. Netherlands Cancer Institute

When oncologists treat cancer patients, they try to protect the salivary glands from radiation to prevent swallowing problems and chronic dry mouth. Because doctors never knew these glands existed, they never protected them.

"For most patients, it should technically be possible to avoid delivering radiation to this newly discovered location of the salivary gland system in the same way we try to spare known glands," Wouter Vogel, a radiation oncologist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and co-author on the study, says in a press release. "Our next step is to find out how we can best spare these new glands and in which patients. If we can do this, patients may experience less side effects which will benefit their overall quality of life after treatment."

However, doctors like Alvand Hassankhani, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, isn't too keen on naming the glands "new organs" quite yet, he tells the New York Times. He says that the researchers likely captured more detailed images of minor glands in higher quality.

Other doctors were more persuaded, but they called for a wider and more diverse patient population. Yvonne Mowery, a radiation oncologist at Duke University, tells the New York Times that she “was quite shocked that we are in 2020 and have a new structure identified in the human body,” but "one clinical data set is never enough."

Since the researchers used scans from patients with prostate or urethral gland cancer, only one of the 100 subjects was a woman. Mowery says that the scans were also done on cancer patients, and it could be worth widening the experiment to include other people and various methods.

Valerie Fitzhugh, a pathologist at Rutgers University, agrees and tells the New York Times that she'd "like to see more balance." But now that researchers and doctors know that this organ exists, "they know to look for it," she says.

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