Scientists Shocked to Discover a New Structure in Human Body

Some have claimed that we have picked all the low-hanging fruit and that there is little yet to be discovered. But if we remain curious, alert to serendipitous inconsistencies or surprises, we still have a lot to be learned. The default is to not see, or at least to soon forget, when we see the unexpected. To see and remember is hard enough. In the passages quoted below the researchers saw, remembered, and followed up. (Another example would be when Nick Steinsberger saw, remembered, and followed-up on the unexpected positive effects of the accidentally too watery fracking mixture injected into a well.)

(p. D5) A team of researchers in the Netherlands has discovered what may be a set of previously unidentified organs: a pair of large salivary glands, lurking in the nook where the nasal cavity meets the throat. If the findings are confirmed, this hidden wellspring of spit could mark the first identification of its kind in about three centuries.

Any modern anatomy book will show just three major types of salivary glands: one set near the ears, another below the jaw and another under the tongue. “Now, we think there is a fourth,” said Dr. Matthijs Valstar, a surgeon and researcher at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and an author on the study, published last month in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology.

The study was small, and examined a limited patient population, said Dr. Valerie Fitzhugh, a pathologist at Rutgers University who wasn’t involved in the research. But “it seems like they may be onto something,” she said. “If it’s real, it could change the way we look at disease in this region.”

Even without a direct therapeutic application, Dr. Yvonne Mowery, a radiation oncologist at Duke University, said she “was quite shocked that we are in 2020 and have a new structure identified in the human body.”

Dr. Valstar and his colleagues, who usually study data from people with prostate cancer, didn’t set out on a treasure hunt for unidentified spit glands.

. . .

While perusing a set of scans from a machine that could visualize tissues in high detail, the researchers noticed two unfamiliar structures dead center in the head: a duo of flat, spindly glands, a couple of inches in length, draped discreetly over the tubes that connect the ears to the throat.

Puzzled by the images, they dissected tissue from two cadavers and found that the glands bore similarities to known salivary glands that sit below the tongue. The new glands were also hooked up to large draining ducts — a hint that they were funneling fluid from one place to another.

It’s not completely clear how the glands eluded anatomists. But “the location is not very accessible, and you need very sensitive imaging to detect it,” said Dr. Wouter Vogel, a radiation oncologist at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and an author on the study.

. . .

Dr. Fitzhugh added that it should be easier to spot the camera-shy glands with traditional techniques “now that they know to look for it.”

For the full story, see:

Katherine J. Wu. “The Human Anatomy Yields a New Surprise.” The New York Times (Tuesday, October 27, 2020): D5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated on Oct. 21, 2020, and has the title “Doctors May Have Found Secretive New Organs in the Center of Your Head.”)

The academic article mentioned above is:

Valstar, Matthijs H., Bernadette S. de Bakker, Roel J. H. M. Steenbakkers, Kees H. de Jong, Laura A. Smit, Thomas J. W. Klein Nulent, Robert J. J. van Es, Ingrid Hofland, Bart de Keizer, Bas Jasperse, Alfons J. M. Balm, Arjen van der Schaaf, Johannes A. Langendijk, Ludi E. Smeele, and Wouter V. Vogel. “The Tubarial Salivary Glands: A Potential New Organ at Risk for Radiotherapy.” Radiotherapy and Oncology (published online in advance of print on Sept. 23, 2020).

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