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News

16Oct 2020

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Cancer researchers discover new salivary gland

Researchers at the Netherlands Cancer Institute 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. On Friday October 16th they publish their research in Radiotherapy & Oncology, together with colleagues from Amsterdam UMC, UMCG and UMC Utrecht.

 

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You might expect that we would know all parts of our body by now. Advanced technology allows us to visualize organs, cells, and even molecules. What are the odds of a new discovery?

Unexpected

Imagine the surprise of radiation oncologist Wouter Vogel and oral and maxillofacial surgeon Matthijs Valstar who were studying a new type of scan as part of their research when they discovered that, all the way in the back of the nasopharynx, two unexpected areas had lit up. Areas that looked similar to known major salivary glands.

At the Netherlands Cancer Institute, Vogel and Valstar investigate the side effects radiation can have on the head and neck. The scans they studied, highlighted the salivary glands through the use of a marker, in order to spare them during treatment.

New areas

But there, all the way in the back of the nasopharynx, there shouldn't be any large salivary glands, right? "People have three sets of large salivary glands, but not there," Vogel explains. "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."

In collaboration with their colleagues at UMC Utrecht, they discovered that all 100 people whose scans they studied had a set of these glands. These patients had a new type of scan done because of their prostate cancer: a PSMA PET/CT scan. Salivary glands show up rather clearly on this kind of imaging. Valstar: "The two new areas that lit up turned out to have other characteristics of salivary glands as well." This was confirmed in the tissue of two human bodies they studied together with their colleagues at the Amsterdam UMC. "We call them tubarial glands, referring to their anatomical location."

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Trouble speaking

Back to the people for whom Valstar and Vogel initially started their research: patients with head and neck cancer, including tumors in the throat or tongue. "Radiation therapy can damage the salivary glands, which may lead to complications," radiation therapist Vogel explains. "Patients may have trouble eating, swallowing, or speaking, which can be a real burden."

Less complications

And yes, radiation of these 'new' glands can also go hand in hand with these complications. In collaboration with their colleagues at University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), the researchers analyzed the data of 723 patients who had undergone radiation treatment. Their conclusion: the more radiation delivered to these new areas, the more complications the patients experienced afterwards. Just like what happens to the known salivary glands.

This means that the discovery is not only surprising, but it could also be a benefit to cancer patients. "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," Vogel concludes. "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."

This research has been made possible through the financial support of The Dutch Cancer Society (KWF) and the Maarten van der Weijden Foundation.

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