This NY Times article by Katherine J Wu discusses a “secretive” new organ near the nasal cavity. Doctors from the Netherlands believe this to be an additional pair of flat, spindly salivary glands located on the tubes that connect the throat and ears. These doctors believe that these organs, nestled between the nasal cavity and the throat, have never been identified. Wu explains that the sample size was small and limited but the identification of this new structure could change the understanding of disease and oncology relating to this region of the body. Salivary glands and the production of saliva assist in speaking, swallowing, gustation, and can play roles in healing. Damage to these areas can significantly reduce one’s quality of life. In radiation therapy and cancer treatments, doctors prioritize preventing damage to these areas. After visualizing these glands with very sensitive imaging, researchers dissected the tissue and found striking physiological similarities to the other known salivary glands. Researchers believe these glands may help explain why several patients undergoing radiation therapy experience ‘unexplained’ chronic dry mouth, doctors were not aware of these glands and so did not try to avoid them. Wu emphasizes the fact that research in this area requires more data and a more diverse sample.
A study from Radiotherapy and Oncology discusses this potential new organ, the tubarial salivary gland, in the context of radiotherapy. The authors explain that this organ located in the human nasopharynx is clinically relevant but was previously unnoticed, until it was recently imaged with PSMA PET/CT imaging for prostate-specific membranes. The authors observed this bilateral structure and observed ligand uptake similar to the salivary glands. They hypothesized that this organ played a role in lubrication and swallowing and, if spared in radiotherapy, could improve the quality of life for cancer patients. The researchers observed PSMA PET/CT images for 100 patients (99 male, 1 female) and observed this organ in each of these scans. They then dissected 2 human cadavers and found this gland wrapped around the torus tubarius (cartilage supporting the entrance of the auditory tube). They analyzed the ligand uptake, imaged and modelled the histology, and tested the effects of varying radiotherapy doses on these glands after 1 – 2 years of toxic treatment. They found that high-dose radiotherapy on this new organ led to significant clinical toxicity. The authors go on to discuss some possibilities as to why these organs have not been noticed previously and recognize that more data is needed regarding these organs and the effects of radiotherapy.
Overall, this NY Times article did a good job of addressing the research on this new organ. I think the purpose of this article was to call attention to the newly imaged organ/ salivary gland. The scientific research article has a stronger emphasis on this organ in relationship to it’s risk associated with the toxicity in radiotherapy and how this may impact oncology treatments. While the NY times article did mention this connection, it was not the major focus of the article. I appreciated that the popular science article echoed the researchers opinions that more data and a more diverse sample is needed in studying and understanding the physiology of this new salivary gland. I was surprised to read about an organ that has not previously been identified, especially with the advanced medical imaging we have now. I think this anatomical and physiological research is important in improving the quality of life for cancer patients.