Scientists May Have Discovered an Unknown Organ Hiding in the Throat


Oct 22, 2020


Image Credit: Netherlands Cancer Institute

A team of scientists from the Netherlands believe they’ve discovered a previously unidentified organ in the human body — a fourth pair of salivary glands hiding in the back of the throat, at the juncture where the nasal cavity meets the throat. The team is calling the organ ‘tubarial glands,’ which they happened upon accidentally while conducting scans looking for tumorous growths in cadavers. 

The newly found organ is a pair of flat, spindle-shaped glands surrounding tubes that connect the ear to the throat. They’re located in the base of the skull and attached to large draining ducts. The location, combined with the fact that the glands resemble the salivary glands underneath the tongue, suggested to scientists that the pair are involved in saliva secretion. “The location is not very accessible, and you need very sensitive imaging to detect it,” study author Dr. Wouter Vogel, told the New York Times, explaining why the glands have remained hidden from anatomists for so long. 

“We thought it wasn’t possible to discover this in 2020,” the study’s lead author and surgeon at The Netherlands Cancer Institute, Matthijs H. Valstar, said. “It’s important it’s replicated and it should be done with different series of patients. It’s important to have confirmation of new medical findings.”

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While this discovery has been widely met with shock and fascination, some are hesitant to call the glands a “new organ.” Radiologist Dr. Alvand Hassankhani tells the New York Times how the mouth and throat lining have approximately 1,000 minor salivary glands, in addition to three large pairs. It’s unclear, from just one study, whether the ‘tubarial glands’ are an addition to the three, or simply one of the 1,000 (many of which are not yet mapped by scientists).

In any case, more clinical data sets are required to call the new findings, published in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology, conclusive. In the meantime, scientists are excited about the implication of the discovery. When the Dutch team first found the glands, they were studying how radiation could affect the bodies of people with prostate cancer. Salivary glands, to anyone dealing in oncology, are incredibly important and fragile tissues, which can easily be zapped and lose their utility if accidentally hit with radiation. This concern is what led scientists to use technology that could visualize throat tissue in high detail, which is when they noticed the presence of two structures they hadn’t encountered before. 

Going forward, Dr. Vogel says this discovery will help scientists avoid or spare the ‘tubarial glands’ while administering radiation to cancer patients, which we know already leads to chronic dry mouth. Up until now, “nobody ever tried to spare them,” he added. 

Beyond the implications of the new discovery, another point of excitement remains the possibility of such a discovery itself — in 2020, when we thought we knew everything about the human body, new technology is able to show us nooks and crannies in which we’ve long stopped looking. What a thing, indeed.


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


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