Surprise! There's a Secret Organ in Your Head

Photo credit: Valstar, et. al./Radiotherapy and Oncology
From popular mechanics
A surprise organ found in hundreds of patients is likely a fourth pair of salivary glands.
The research has consequences for cancer patients as the glands are damaged by radiation.
The likely gland is in the back of the throat near where a COVID-19 swab will be removed.
Scientists have found a previously undiscovered organ deep in the human head where the nasal passages meet the throat. Yes, the news comes as an extraordinary-sounding surprise, but the researchers say the discovery is likely a fourth pair of salivary glands - not a second brain or transistor radio. If the results are confirmed, it will be the first discovery of a new human organ in around 300 years.
? You love the evil human body. We also. Let's think about it together.
Sharp-eyed viewers may recognize this particular location as the main place where COVID-19 swabs are drawn, but the new study from the Netherlands came from a different angle, so to speak. While studying patient scans, the scientists identified the almost-hidden fourth salivary glands as the cause of a gross side effect of radiological treatment for cancer. You explain:
“[W] we observed that PSMA PET / CT also had an unknown structure in the nasopharynx, similar to the known large salivary glands. To the best of our knowledge, this structure did not match previous anatomical descriptions. This could be clinically relevant in oncology, as high-dose radiation therapy (RT) is known to cause damage to the salivary glands during treatment for head and neck cancer (HNC) or brain metastases. "
They found the same structure in enough of hundreds of scan samples to extrapolate that humans generally own it. And the consequences of zapping with radiation are pretty dire:
“This can lead to loss of function in xerostomia and dysphagia. Affected patients suffer from impaired food intake, digestion, language problems and an increased risk of tooth decay and oral infections, all of which have a significant impact on their quality of life. The large salivary glands are therefore considered organs at risk (OAR) and must be spared if possible. "
Photo credit: Valstar, et. al./Radiotherapy and Oncology
What does that mean? Well, xerostomia is dry mouth, from xero (dry) and stoma (mouth). Dysphagia is the inability (dys) to swallow (phage). These are important side effects for patients who are already experiencing others, such as appetite suppression and nausea. When the solution is as simple as shielding this area during radiology, the improvement in quality of life is clear.
"Doctors take numerous precautions to avoid damaging the glands when administering radiation therapy, which, with a single misdirected zap, can permanently compromise delicate tissues," reports the New York Times.
How have scientists never seen this? Well, what's on our minds is still pretty mysterious to some extent. It's hard to monitor what's happening in a mass of tissue that all look pretty similar. In this case, the nature of the canals gave scientists a way in - they found that a very small area identified in cadavers had a structure that showed the passage of fluids. Think of a vast stretch of desert compared to an ant farm. Both are sandy, but only one has identifiable tunnels.
“The next logical step seems to be to optimize the radiation therapy fields of the tubal glands as new OARs,” the researchers conclude. That could make patients much more comfortable.
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