We know that the human body is a mesmerically complicated system of tissues, bones and organs, a fantastic structure that still isn’t fully understood. Well for sure, there are things to learn about our anatomy, but we at least know about all of our organs, right? Well… not quite. It turns out that the body still harbors significant secrets, as some researchers from the Netherlands were astonished to discover only very recently.
These scientists weren’t purposely looking to discover any new organs or anything – they had their own priorities. In actual fact they were trying to learn more about prostate cancer, a worthy pursuit considering the condition’s prevalence. But it was in undertaking this vital research that they noticed something which had somehow eluded medical specialists throughout history.
The researchers were focused on the upper parts of the body, taking scans of a person’s head and their neck. It was in the midst of these examinations that the group noticed something odd. The tests had revealed something unprecedented, a structure that nobody on the team had ever seen before.
There was a chance that this was a discrepancy. Maybe the scan was showing things that weren’t really there, or perhaps this particular individual had an unusual physical makeup? So, the researchers looked for the structure in other people, too. But after examining scans of 100 different individuals – not to mention dissecting two further corpses, one belonging to a man and one to a woman, just to be sure – they found that this thing was apparently in every one of us.
The discovery of this newly identified organ isn’t just of interest for its own sake. No, this unexpected find could actually have real-life implications for the way we treat stricken patients today. People’s lives and outcomes could be genuinely enhanced here, so this accidental discovery could well prove to be ground-breaking.
Living in the 21st century as we do, you’d be forgiven for presuming that every organ within the human body had already been discovered. Yet here we are in 2020, finding this structure that’s been lying in obscurity inside our throats. It’s the type of revelation you just wouldn’t expect to come across in this day and age.
Our species has long sought to better understand the workings of the body. Even going back thousands of years to our ancient history, it seems human beings were trying to get a grasp of biology. We know this because of cave paintings depicting anatomical structures, some of which date back 25,000 years or so.
We’ve also found evidence that a practice known as trepanning was undertaken by people during the Stone Age. Basically, this gruesome act involved carving out an opening in a living person’s skull. It’s a nasty thought, but it’s theorized that the procedure was undertaken to “help” people with mental difficulties.
Later, in Ancient Egypt, we see evidence that people were really beginning to revere individuals who practiced medicine. These doctors had a rather archaic understanding of the field, as we can see from sketches recovered from this period. Still, it seems that people in the society understood how important medical knowledge was.
But it was the Ancient Greeks who really started to advance our understanding of the workings of the human body. It’s believed that a person named Alcmaeon of Croton started to dissect deceased humans at this point, which would’ve helped him to gain a better sense of the structures involved. Sadly, though, we’ve never recovered any of Alcameon’s personal records of these procedures.
After Alcmaeon came Hippocrates – who saved Athens from a plague and is generally regarded as the father of modern medicine – and then Aristotle, both of whom were interested in the way that the body functions. It’s fair to say that the work of these two men led to a more sophisticated comprehension of anatomy. Aristotle, specifically, started to undertake dissections of creatures in a more formalized manner.
The influence of the Greeks on our understanding of biology was vast, even after the civilization had gone into decline. And later, in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, for instance, medical practitioners helped to establish anatomy as a distinct field. Studies here related to structures such as the nervous system ultimately created a basis for medical theory as it exists today.
The Roman Empire, of course, eventually overtook Greece as the dominant civilization in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and in much of what’s now northern Europe, too. And with that, the practices of anatomical study changed. You see, human dissection was prohibited throughout Roman territories, so such procedures were instead focused on animals. This meant that comprehension of the human body could only develop so far, though injured gladiators could be studied.
A doctor named Galen was known to undertake animal post-mortems in Rome, particularly focusing on monkeys. Through his work, it was Galen who really took note of how vital the spinal cord is to vertebrates. He also sought to understand the ways in which certain nerves worked within the body.
With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Arab world took up the mantle as the center of medical theory. Numerous important figures emerged throughout the region, including Muhammad Al-Razi, who helped to develop knowledge of the nervous system. And another person named Abu ibn Sina wrote a vital text known as the Canon of Medicine.
Medical learning started to become prevalent once again throughout Europe starting from roughly the year 1000 A.D. Building upon knowledge developed within the Arab world, practitioners in Italy in particular became very important during the period. Human post-mortems were undertaken once more, with manuals on such practices now being written and circulated.
The Renaissance later saw prominent artists moving into the field of anatomy, as it allowed them to more accurately produce works depicting humans. Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most famous example of an artist that drew pictures of the human form, though others were known to do so, too. The Catholic Church prohibited post-mortems at this time, but the practice was still sometimes undertaken in secret.
Over the centuries that followed the Renaissance, medical practices began to take shape and resemble what we see today. The microscope was invented, which was a feat that completely revolutionized the study of the human body. Now, we could finally look at things all the way down to a cellular level.
Cells were first noted by Robert Hooke, with the centuries that followed leading to a more refined understanding of how they worked. By 1989 a theory had been put forth by Matthias Schwann and Theodor Schleiden that cells were present within all tissue. This line of thinking underlies so much medical theory today.
Technology has now developed to a level that would have been impossible to imagine for the thinkers of old. This, of course, naturally applies to the tools that are now used in the field of medicine, too. These machines and implements are constantly evolving, so who knows what breakthroughs await us down the line?
The history of anatomy has been a long one, with people trying to make sense of the body for millennia. Yet even with all the effort that’s been put into investigating our insides, features have been missed. And in 2020 a discovery was made that will further inform our understanding of our makeup.
As previously mentioned, this discovery came about totally by accident, after researchers studying prostate cancer took a special type of scan of someone. The techniques involved in this examination are particularly useful for detecting cells that have been affected by this disease. But they’re also good at highlighting salivary glands present in the body.
Having taken a scan of one person, the researchers noticed the strange structure. So, as all good scientists should, they looked at other subjects to confirm their find. As we’ve already noted, they scanned 100 more people, and they even performed a couple of dissections. All these exercises demonstrated that this structure was present in all cases.
The scientists were delighted by their find, which they have dubbed the “tubarial glands.” But they were naturally cautious about claiming it as a new discovery, as head researcher Matthijs H. Valstar later explained to news network CNN. After all, how could it be that a functional organ had gone completely unnoticed for so long?
Dr. Valstar is a surgeon with the Netherlands Cancer Institute and his rigorous scientific background goes some way to explaining his wary approach. He said, “We thought it wasn’t possible to discover this in 2020. It’s important [that] it’s replicated and it should be done with different series of patients. It’s important to have confirmation of new medical findings.”
The provisionally named tubarial glands were discovered in the throat, right in its upper end behind our noses. This was really unexpected for all involved in the study, including Dr. Valstar and his colleague Wouter Vogel. There really was no indication before this research that salivary glands such as this would be positioned here.
As Dr. Vogel explained in a statement in October 2020, “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 1,000 are evenly spread out throughout the mucosa. So, imagine our surprise when we found these.”
Speaking to CNN, an anatomy expert who wasn’t a part of this study praised the people involved. Professor Joy Reidenberg of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City said, “Luckily, these researchers were tuned into the data, and were anatomically savvy enough to note the unusual brightness in a region that was not thought to contain any salivary glands. As the famous [late French biologist] Louis Pasteur once said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’”
The discovery of these tubarial glands is undoubtedly interesting. But the anatomical community will now have to weigh up whether or not they can be considered a true organ in their own right. You see, it might be that they’re simply a small part of a wider organ system of salivary glands.
Scattered around our mouths and throats, we have three significant sets of salivary glands and about 1,000 smaller ones. These lesser glands can be tough to find, so perhaps this research simply represents a better way to detect them. Ultimately, more research will be needed to figure out whether we can correctly identify these structures as organs.
At a glance, there’s one major reason to be skeptical of the research that’s pointed out these glands. Basically, the group of people that were analyzed in the study were far from diverse, with only one woman evaluated. Obviously, more females will need to be tested before we can say whether or not these glands are genuinely universal.
Having said that, though, the study’s definitely promising. If nothing else, it’s served to illustrate how new technologies and techniques are shedding light on previously obscured parts of our own anatomy. With that in mind, we’re bound to reveal more and more fascinating features of our own bodies down the line.
But thinking about the tubarial glands themselves, what do we know of their function? Well, given their resemblance to other salivary glands, we can assume that they’re vital for producing spit. It might not be the most pleasant subject to think about, but ultimately this helps us to enjoy some wonderful things in life.
Salivary glands keep the inside of our mouths lubricated, which ultimately helps us to swallow food and to chat. Saliva ensures that the components of food that make it delicious are able to reach the cells that allow us to appreciate them. Plus, spit fights germs and helps wounds to heal more quickly.
Given the importance of salivary glands, then, medical practitioners try to avoid interfering with them. When treating cancer, for example, they’ll try to keep the glands out of the firing line of radiation therapy. If the structures end up getting zapped during treatments such as this, then the patient might then face difficulties swallowing and chatting.
People who are being treated with radiation therapy for cancer in their neck area regularly experience bouts of dry mouth. And they can also sometimes find it quite difficult to swallow. So, maybe the previously unknown tubarial glands have been getting zapped throughout the course of their treatment, causing unnecessary suffering?
If this is the case, then the discovery of these glands could well improve the lives of cancer sufferers. As Dr. Vogel explained in a statement, “For most patients, it should technically be possible to avoid delivering radiation to this newly discovered location of the salivary gland system in the same way we try to spare known glands.”
This would be a truly wonderful development, provided medical experts can figure out how the tubarial glands can be protected. This will obviously take some consideration, but if the issue can be worked out, the benefits would be great. The research, then, would have real-life advantages for people already enduring difficulties.
Reflecting on what now needs to be done, Dr. Vogel elaborated in a statement. He said, “Our next step is to find out how we can best spare these new glands 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.”
There’s no doubt that more research will be necessary in this area. But as one independent pathologist named Valerie Fitzhugh pointed out to The New York Times newspaper, “It seems like they may be on to something. If it’s real, it could change the way we look at disease in this region.”