Newly-discovered salivary glands could impact radiation therapy for some cancer patients

Published: Nov. 11, 2020 at 4:59 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - It’s hard to imagine scientists discovering a new organ in the human body in 2020, but that’s what scientists in the Netherlands said they’ve found while doing cancer research.

Dutch scientists believe they’ve found another set of salivary glands near the top of the throat that have gone unnoticed for centuries.

“I was certainly surprised when i was reading about it,” said Dr. Jon Slezak, an otolaryngologist with BayCare Clinic.

Dr. Slezak said as a doctor, anatomy is usually one of those things that is thought of as relatively constant.

“We expect there to be the introduction of new medical materials, specifically with how to treat patients or how to diagnose something, but not with anatomy, that’s a constant,” said Dr. Slezak.

So when Dutch scientists with the Netherlands Cancer Institute released a paper in October saying they’ve found a new set of salivary glands where the nose and throat meet, Dr. Slezak said, “Certainly that was news to all of us. So yes, very surprised.”

According to the research, the scientists found the salivary glands while using a special scan, typically used for prostate cancer research.

“It’s in a very inaccessible location in the back of the nose and it’s not something that’s easily seen,” said Dr. Slezak.

Of all the patients examined, including two cadavers, the researchers found the newly discovered glands in everyone.

“The idea is that everyone has it,” said Dr. Slezak.

If everyone has the additional pair of salivary glands, what does it mean for patients?

“There’s an idea in medicine that you can’t diagnose something if you don’t think about it first and so now that this has kind of come to our attention, there’s gonna be a lot of different questions that are going to be asked to try to determine how clinically relevant and how significant this tissue is,” said Dr. Slezak.

Salivary glands help with chewing, swallowing and lubrication of the mouth and throat.

When people undergo radiation therapy for head or neck cancer, dry mouth and problems swallowing are common side effects. Dr. Slezak said salivary glands are very susceptible to damage from radiation therapy, so if these new ones can be spared, maybe it can help people be more comfortable through treatment.

“The more research that we can do to try to determine if preserving these areas, ahead of time, if that helps these patients outcomes in the long run, I think that would be fantastic,” said Dr. Slezak.

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