Radiation oncologist Wouter Vogel and oral and maxillofacial surgeon Matthijs Valstar at the Netherlands Cancer Institute were surprised to discover previously unknown glands in the back of the nasopharynx (upper part of the throat, behind the nose), which they called “tubarial glands”.
The discovery happened as the scientists studied a new type of scan as part of their investigation of the side effects radiation can have on the head and neck.
"People have three sets of large salivary glands, but not there. As far as we knew, the only salivary or mucous glands in the nasopharynx are microscopically small, and up to 1000 are evenly spread out throughout the mucosa. So, imagine our surprise when we found these," Wouter Vogel said.
Researchers at the @NKI_nl have discovered a new location of the salivary glands. This is potentially great news for patients with head and neck tumors: radiation oncologists will now be able to circumvent this area to avoid potential complications ➡️ https://t.co/LP9QZsZVlm pic.twitter.com/nLpeAp6vVK— Neth. Cancer Inst. (@NKI_nl) October 18, 2020
Together with colleagues at UMC Utrecht, Vogel and Valstar were examining the scans of patients who had prostate cancer and had undergone PSMA PET/CT scan. According to the scientists, salivary glands show up rather clearly on this kind of imaging.
"The two new areas that lit up turned out to have other characteristics of salivary glands as well…We call them tubarial glands, referring to their anatomical location," Valstar explained.
The benefit of the discovery is that “it should technically be possible to avoid delivering radiation to this newly discovered location of the salivary gland system in the same way” scientists “try to spare known glands."
The next step for the researchers is to find out how it can be done best 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," Vogel said, adding that radiation “patients may have trouble eating, swallowing, or speaking, which can be a real burden."
The study and the news of the discovery have been published in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology.