New Pterosaur Species Unearthed in China (Paleontology)

A new genus and species of dsungaripterid pterosaur that lived during the Early Cretaceous epoch has been identified from the incomplete lower jaws found in China.

Life reconstruction of Ordosipterus planignathus. Image credit: Chuang Zhao.

Pterosaurs are highly successful flying reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs, between 210 million and 65 million years ago.

They were Earth’s first flying vertebrates, with birds and bats making their appearances much later.

Some pterosaurs, such as the giant azhdarchids, were the largest flying animals of all time, with wingspans exceeding 9 m (30 feet) and standing heights comparable to modern giraffes.

The newly-identified species, dubbed Ordosipterus planignathus, lived between 120 and 110 million years ago during the Cretaceous period.

This flying reptile belongs to Dsungaripteridae, a family of robust pterosaurs that includes several genera and species from Asia and South America.

“As a member of the Dsungaripteridae family, Ordosipterus planignathus enlarges the geographical distribution of the dsungaripterid pterosaurs from the northwestern China — with western Mongolia — to central North China,” said Dr. Shu-an Ji, a paleontologist in the Institute of Geology at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences and the Key Laboratory of Stratigraphy and Palaeontology at China’s Ministry of Natural Resources.

Incomplete articulated lower jaws of Ordosipterus planignathus: (a) dorsal view, (b) left lateral view, (c) ventral view. Image credit: Shu-an Ji, doi: 10.31035/cg2020007.

The fossilized remains of Ordosipterus planignathus were found in the Luohandong Formation near Xinzhao village in Inner Mongolia, China.

“The specimen consists of the anterior portion of articulated lower jaws, with a partial tooth and several alveoli,” Dr. Ji said.

“The rostral tip of the mandibular symphysis is missing.”

“The preserved segments of the left and right dentaries measure 7.7 cm (3 inches) and 4.5 cm (1.8 inches) long, respectively.”

Ordosipterus planignathus represents the first convincible pterosaur from the Ordos Region in Inner Mongolia, and the second pterosaur species from the Ordos Basin after Huanhepterus quingyangensis in Gansu Province,” he concluded.

“This fossil further strengthens the opinion that the northern China and Mongolia belong to a unique and endemic dinosaur biogeographic realm featured by the presence of Psittacosaurus and pterosaurs during the Early Cretaceous period.”

The discovery of Ordosipterus planignathus is described in a paper published in the journal China Geology.

References: Shu-an Ji. 2020. First record of Early Cretaceous pterosaur from the Ordos Region, Inner Mongolia, China. China Geology 3 (1): 1-7; doi: 10.31035/cg2020007

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Membrane-Winged Dinosaurs Yi and Ambopteryx were Poor Gliders (Paleontology)

Yi qi and Ambopteryx longibrachium are two bizarre scansoriopterygid theropods that lived in what is now China about 160 million years ago (Late Jurassic epoch). They had skin stretched between elongate fingers that form a potential membranous wing. Most theropods were ground-loving carnivores, but Yi qi and Ambopteryx longibrachium were at home in the trees and lived on a diet of insects, seeds, and other plants. According to a new study published in the journal iScience, Yi qi and Ambopteryx longibrachium struggled to fly, only managing to glide clumsily between the trees where they lived; unable to compete with other tree-dwelling dinosaurs and early birds, they went extinct after just a few million years.

Ambopteryx longibrachium. Image credit: Chung-Tat Cheung & Min Wang / Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“Once birds got into the air, these two species were so poorly capable of being in the air that they just got squeezed out,” said first author Dr. Thomas Dececchi, a researcher in the Department of Biology at Mount Marty University.

“Maybe you can survive a few million years underperforming, but you have predators from the top, competition from the bottom, and even some small mammals adding into that, squeezing them out until they disappeared.”

Curious about how Yi qi and Ambopteryx longibrachium fly, Dr. Dececchi and colleagues scanned fossils using laser-stimulated fluorescence, a technique that uses laser light to pick up soft-tissue details that can’t be seen with standard white light.

They then used mathematical models to predict how these dinosaurs might have flown, testing many different variables like weight, wingspan, and muscle placement.

“They really can’t do powered flight. You have to give them extremely generous assumptions in how they can flap their wings,” Dr. Dececchi said.

‘You basically have to model them as the biggest bat, make them the lightest weight, make them flap as fast as a really fast bird, and give them muscles higher than they were likely to have had to cross that threshold.”

“They could glide, but even their gliding wasn’t great,” he noted.

Yi qi. Image credit: Highlightskids.

While gliding is not an efficient form of flight, since it can only be done if the animal has already climbed to a high point, it did help Yi qi and Ambopteryx longibrachium stay out of danger while they were still alive.

“If an animal needs to travel long distances for whatever reason, gliding costs a bit more energy at the start, but it’s faster. It can also be used as an escape hatch,” Dr. Dececchi said.

“It’s not a great thing to do, but sometimes it’s a choice between losing a bit of energy and being eaten.”

“Once they were put under pressure, they just lost their space. They couldn’t win on the ground. They couldn’t win in the air. They were done.”

The authors are now looking at the muscles that powered Yi qi and Ambopteryx longibrachium to construct an accurate image of these bizarre little creatures.

“I’m used to working with the earliest birds, and we sort of have an idea of what they looked like already,” Dr. Dececchi said.

“To work where we’re just trying to figure out the possibilities for a weird creature is kind of fun.”

References: T. Alexander Dececchi et al. Aerodynamics Show Membrane-Winged Theropods Were a Poor Gliding Dead-end. iScience, published online October 22, 2020; doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2020.101574

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215-Million-Year-Old Fossil from Greenland Sheds Light on Origin of Mammals (Paleontology)

A new genus and species of mammaliaform that lived during the Triassic period has been identified from a partial jaw with teeth found on the eastern coast of Greenland. It represents the earliest known example of a dentary bone with double molariform roots and a crown with two rows of cusps, and offers insight into mammal tooth evolution, particularly the development of double-rooted teeth.

An artist’s impression of Kalaallitkigun jenkinsi. Image credit: Marta Szubert.

The newly-discovered mammaliaform species was a shrew-like animal about the size of a large mouse, probably covered with fur.

Named Kalaallitkigun jenkinsi, it lived during the Late Triassic epoch, around 215 million years ago.

Its partial left dentary, with two teeth still preserved in their respective alveoli, was found at the Liasryggen site located on the left bank of the Carlsberg Fjord, Jameson Land, East Greenland.

“I knew it was important from the moment I took this 2 cm (0.8 inches) specimen off the ground,” said Dr. Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki, a paleontologist in the Department of Organismal Biology in the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University.

Kalaallitkigun jenkinsi exhibits the earliest known dentary with two rows of cusps on molars and double-rooted teeth.

These anatomical features place it as an intermediate between the mammals and the insectivorous morganucodontans, another type of mammaliaform.

Digital rendering of the holotype left dentary of Kalaallitkigun jenkinsi from the mid-to-late Norian of the Fleming Fjord Formation, East Greenland: (A) the life position of the preserved part of the dentary; (B-D) the dentary in labial (B), lingual (C), and occlusal (D) views; (E-G) the only preserved premolariform in labial (E), lingual (F), and occlusal (G) views; (H-J) the only preserved molariform (m2) in lingual (H), labial (I), and occlusal (J) views. M1-3 mark the position of molariforms (2 is double rooted); pm1-4 mark the position of the premolariforms (1 is single, 2 is double rooted); c marks the position of the canine; (A, G, and B) 1-b4 indicate cusp assignments in the molariform. Abbreviations: ang. reg. – angular region, cre. – crest, premolar. – premolariform, molar. – molariform, cor. pr. – coronoid process, cor. fos. – coronoid fossa, M. tempo. fos. – M. temporalis fossa, V3 no. – V3 notch for the mandibular nerve entering the mandibular canal, Mec. sul. – Meckel’s sulcus, mand. ca. for. – mandibular canal foramen, mas. fos. – masseteric fossa, lat. rid. – lateral ridge, postd. tr. – postdentary trough, med. rid. – medial ridge, and sym. – symphysis. Image credit: Sulej et al., doi: 10.1073/pnas.2012437117.

“The structural changes in the teeth are related to changed feeding habits,” the researchers said.

“The animals were switching to a more omnivorous/herbivorous diet and the tooth crown was expanding laterally.”

“Broader teeth with ‘basins’ on the top surface are better for grinding food. This development also forced changes in the structure of the base of the tooth.”

“Our discovery of the oldest mammalian ancestor with double-rooted molars shows how important the role of teeth was in the origin of mammals,” said Dr. Tomasz Sulej, a researcher in the Institute of Paleobiology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

“I had this idea to look at the biomechanics and the collaboration with the engineers turned out great.”

“It seems that the fossils of close mammalian ancestors must be looked for in even older rocks.”

The discovery is reported in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

References: Tomasz Sulej et al. The earliest-known mammaliaform fossil from Greenland sheds light on origin of mammals. PNAS, published online October 12, 2020; doi: 10.1073/pnas.2012437117

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Consciousness is Brain’s Information-Rich Energy Field (Neuroscience)

Electromagnetic energy in the brain enables brain matter to create our consciousness and our ability to be aware and think, according to a new theory developed by Professor Johnjoe McFadden from the University of Surrey.

Professor McFadden argues that consciousness implements algorithms in space, rather than time, within the brain’s electromagnetic field. Image credit: Gerd Altmann.

Publishing his theory in the eminent Oxford University Press journal Neuroscience of Consciousness, Professor McFadden posits that consciousness is in fact the brain’s energy field. This theory could pave the way towards the development of conscious AI, with robots that are aware and have the ability to think becoming a reality.

Early theories on what our consciousness is and how it has been created tended towards the supernatural, suggesting that humans and probably other animals possess an immaterial soul that confers consciousness, thought and free will – capabilities that inanimate objects lack. Most scientists today have discarded this view, known as dualism, to embrace a ‘monistic’ view of a consciousness generated by the brain itself and its network of billions of nerves. By contrast, McFadden proposes a scientific form of dualism based on the difference between matter and energy, rather than matter and soul.

The theory is based on scientific fact: when neurons in the brain and nervous system fire, they not only send the familiar electrical signal down the wire-like nerve fibres, but they also send a pulse of electromagnetic energy into the surrounding tissue. Such energy is usually disregarded, yet it carries the same information as nerve firings, but as an immaterial wave of energy, rather than a flow of atoms in and out of the nerves.

This electromagnetic field is well-known and is routinely detected by brain-scanning techniques such as electroencephalogram (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) but has previously been dismissed as irrelevant to brain function. Instead, McFadden proposes that the brain’s information- rich electromagnetic field is in fact itself the seat of consciousness, driving ‘free will’ and voluntary actions. This new theory also accounts for why, despite their immense complexity and ultra-fast operation, today’s computers have not exhibited the slightest spark of consciousness; however, with the right technical development, robots that are aware and can think for themselves could become a reality.

Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics and Director of the Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre at the University of Surrey, said: “How brain matter becomes aware and manages to think is a mystery that has been pondered by philosophers, theologians, mystics and ordinary people for millennia. I believe this mystery has now been solved, and that consciousness is the experience of nerves plugging into the brain’s self-generated electromagnetic field to drive what we call ‘free will’ and our voluntary actions.”

References: Johnjoe McFadden, Integrating information in the brain’s EM field: the cemi field theory of consciousness, Neuroscience of Consciousness, Volume 2020, Issue 1, 2020, niaa016, https://doi.org/10.1093/nc/niaa016

Provided by University Of Surrey

Ancient Hittite Farmers Paid Taxes in Barley and Wheat (Archeology)

A team of archaeologists from the United Kingdom and Germany has carried out an archaeobotanical analysis of plant remains recovered from the 3,500-year-old royal storage complex at the site of the ancient Hittite capital city of Hattusha.

During its zenith, the Hittite empire rivaled and threatened ancient Egypt.

Hattusha, also known as Hattusa, Hattusas or Hattush, is situated on the north-central Anatolian plateau, approximately 210 km east of Ankara, Turkey. It was established by Hattusili I, a king of the Hittite Old Kingdom, in 1650 BCE.

The site was rediscovered during the late 19th century CE, and excavations — undertaken by archaeologists from the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut — began in the 1930s.

In 1999, they unearthed a massive subterranean grain storage complex, or silo, measuring 118 m in length and 33-40 m in width.

“The total capacity of the complex was between 7,000 and 9,000 m3 — sufficient to store between 5,512 and 7,087 tons of cereal grain, which is enough to feed a population of 20,000-30,000 for one year,” University of Oxford’s Professor Amy Bogaard and colleagues wrote in their paper.

“Internally, the silo was divided into 32 individual storage chambers that were hermetically sealed and could be filled and emptied independently.”

“It was partially destroyed by fire during the early 16th century BCE, not long after its construction.”

“Upon excavation, the most spectacular feature of this discovery was that some of the silo’s chambers were full, containing hundreds of tons of intact charred cereal grain.”

(A) Plan of Hattusha, with the silo in red; (B) plan of the silo complex, with the five excavated chambers indicated by color. Image credit: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut / Diffey et al., doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.172.

Professor Bogaard and her team analyzed 45 samples from the five excavated chambers of the ancient silo.

The samples contained a mixture of well-preserved cereal grains, cereal chaff, pulse and weed seeds.

“Of these groups, grains of hulled barley (Hordeum vulgare) and grains or whole spikelets of the hulled wheats, emmer (Triticum dicoccum) and einkorn (Triticum monococcum), dominated the assemblage,” the researchers wrote.

“Hulled barley was the most frequently identified cereal, a preference that may be attributed to the drought tolerance of this species.”

“The predominance of cereal grains throughout the assemblage accords with use of the silo as a storage depot for taxed produce.”

The scientists were also surprised to find the large quantity of weed seeds within every sample. Of the 100 species identified, 17 were found in over 50% of samples, and seven were found in over 80% of samples.

“Frequently occurring species include wild bishop (Bifora radians), corn buttercup (Ranunculus arvensis) and cow herb (Vaccaria pyramidata), all of which are native to the central Anatolian plateau and associated with modern arable agriculture,” they wrote.

“Other plant species identified from the silo include potential cultivars: free-threshing wheat (Triticum aestivum/durum), bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia), lentil (Lens culinaris), grass pea (Lathyrus sativus/cicera) and a variety of small-seeded broad bean (Vicia faba var. minuta).”

Carbonized crop and weed material from Hattusha’s silo complex: (A) spikelets and grains of hulled wheats, and associated weed seeds; (B) hulled barley grain; (C) seeds of corn buttercup; (D) seeds of wild bishop. Image credit: R. Neef / Diffey et al., doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.172.

The team’s findings revealed a detailed snapshot of Hittite agriculture in the early 16th century BCE.

“Hittite farmers fulfilled their tax obligations by engaging in low-input production of cereals that provided reasonable yields even under marginal growing conditions,” the authors wrote.

“The separation of results by silo chamber, however, has also highlighted the level of variation that existed within this relatively extensive system, and has revealed the existence of multiple, distinct farming regimes.”

“This range of crop-husbandry regimes, as denoted by crop stable isotope analysis and functional ecological analysis of associated weed flora, indicates appreciable agroecological variability, suggesting that some farmers had access to better watered soils and supplies of manure, as well as animal and human labor.”

“Crops from the silo appear to have had distinct origins, demonstrating that the royal administration was able to tax the production of a varied agricultural economy across its rural hinterland,” they added.

“The detailed reconstruction of Hittite agroecology suggests that large-scale, extensive cereal production was a key state-sponsored economic strategy, with implications for the promotion of land-based wealth inequality and the territorial expansionism of many ancient states.”

The results were published in the journal Antiquity.

References: Charlotte Diffey et al. 2020. The agroecology of an early state: new results from Hattusha. Antiquity 94 (377): 1204-1223; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.172

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Archaeologists Discover Cat Geoglyph at Nazca Lines Site (Archeology)

Archaeologists with the Nazca-Palpa Management Plan of Peru’s Ministry of Culture have discovered a 2,100-year-old figure of a relaxing feline in the Nazca Desert, southern Peru.

This image shows the figure of a feline on a hillside in the Nazca Desert, southern Peru. Image credit: La Oficina de Comunicación e Imagen, Ministerio De Cultura, Gobierno del Perú.

The geoglyphs of Nazca are a series of drawings located in the desert plains of the Rio Grande de Nazca river basin about 400 km (250 miles) south of Lima, the capital and the largest city of Peru.

The monuments were created between 500 BCE and 500 CE by ancient people making depressions or shallow incisions in the desert floor, removing pebbles and leaving differently colored dirt exposed.

They depict living creatures, stylized plants and imaginary beings, as well as geometric figures several km long.

They became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994, and are among archaeology’s greatest enigmas because of their quantity, nature, size and continuity.

The newly-discovered cat geoglyph measures about 37 m (121.4 feet) in length.

“The figure was barely visible and was about to disappear due to its location on a fairly steep slope and the effects of natural erosion,” the archaeologists said.

The new geoglyph dates from between 200 BCE and 100 BCE (Late Paracas period).

“Representations of felines of this type are frequent in the iconography of ceramics and textiles of the Paracas society,” the researchers said.

“With this discovery, once again, the rich and varied cultural legacy that the area harbors, which is also within the area inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is revealed.”

This article is republished here from sci news under common creative licenses

New Theory On The Origin Of Dark Matter (Astronomy)

A recent study from the University of Melbourne proposes a new theory for the origin of dark matter, helping experimentalists in Australia and abroad in the search for the mysterious new matter.

Baker et al. described a new mechanism of dark matter production: if dark matter particles acquire mass during a first order phase transition, it is energetically unfavorable for them to enter the expanding bubbles; instead, most of them are reflected and quickly annihilate away; the bubbles eventually merge as the phase transition completes and only the dark matter particles that have entered the bubbles survive to constitute the observed dark matter today; this mechanism can produce dark matter with masses from the TeV scale to above the PeV scale. Image credit: pixelstalk.net

The work has been published in Physical Review Letters and describes how expanding bubbles in the early universe may be the key to understanding dark matter.

“Our proposed mechanism suggests that the dark matter abundance may have been determined in a cosmological phase transition,” said Dr Michael Baker, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne and one of the authors.

“These phase transitions are expected to have taken place in the early universe and can be similar to bubbles of gas forming in boiling water. We show that it is natural to expect dark matter particles to find it very difficult enter these bubbles, which gives a new explanation for the amount of dark matter observed in the universe.”

Although many experiments have searched for particle dark matter, none have yet been successful. Most experiments have searched primarily for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, which has been the favoured dark matter candidate for decades. However, these experiments have not yet seen anything, which really motivates theorists to think outside the box.

“We know dark matter is out there, but we don’t know much else,” said Dr Baker. “If it’s a new particle then there’s a good chance that we could actually detect it in a laboratory. We could then pin down its properties, like its mass and interactions, and learn something new and deep about the universe.”

While portions of the work were completed by hand, made possible by a series of simplifying approximations, the results for the study were validated by sophisticated computational calculations. Image: Michael Baker.

The research, which was done in collaboration with Assistant Professor Andrew Long from Rice University, Texas, and Professor Joachim Kopp from CERN and the University of Mainz, points the way for new experimental strategies for searching for dark matter.

“One exciting aspect about the idea is that it works for dark matter particles that are much heavier than most other candidates, such as the famous `Weakly Interacting Massive Particles’, on which most experimental searches in the past were focused,” said Professor Kopp. “Our work, therefore, motivates the extension of dark matter searches towards heavier masses.”

The findings could be especially important for the future of experimental dark matter searches in Australia.

The Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory, which is currently under construction in regional Victoria, one kilometre beneath the ground in a disused gold mine, will be the first underground particle physics laboratory in the Southern Hemisphere, and will house several dark matter search experiments in the years to come.

New theoretical proposals will help drive design experiments that can test the widest range of dark matter candidates, giving scientists the best chance of uncovering the mystery of dark matter.

References: Michael J. Baker et al. 2020. Filtered Dark Matter at a First Order Phase Transition. Phys. Rev. Lett 125 (15): 151102; doi: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.125.151102

Provided by University Of Melbourne

Neo-adjuvant Immunotherapy Combination Effective For Non-metastatic Bladder Cancer (Oncology / Medicine)

This week, researchers at the Netherlands Cancer Institute published the results of the NABUCCO study in scientific journal Nature Medicine. In this publication, they show that neoadjuvant immunotherapy using a combination of two drugs (nivolumab and ipilimumab) is a feasible treatment for bladder cancer without harming the scheduled resection, and shows promising results.

With this publication, bladder cancer is officially the third cancer type – following melanoma and colorectal cancer – for which researchers at the Netherlands Cancer Institute have proven the immense added value of this combination of immunotherapy drugs before surgery for patients with non-metastatic cancer. Studies involving other cancer types are currently still running.

Decreasing risk of recurrence

This publication is an important milestone in our knowledge of the treatment for bladder cancer (urothelial carcinoma). Patients with this type of cancer often face a return of their illness after surgery. Treatment with immunotherapy before surgery aims to lower the risk of recurrence as much as possible. Immunotherapy does not target the tumor itself, but strengthens the body’s own immune system to fight the disease.

Medical oncologist Michiel van der Heijden, research leader: “Patients with bladder cancer at this stage have a high risk of relapse but not many good treatment options, especially when the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. The results of this study can hopefully benefit these patients’ prospects.”

Surgery as scheduled, and effective?

24 patients with locally advanced (stage III) operable bladder cancer participated in the NABUCCO trial. Their cancer had not yet spread through the bloodstream. With this trials, the researchers tried to answer two questions. The main one: are all patients able to receive their surgery on time after immunotherapy treatment? Or, in other words: are we wasting valuable time by giving immunotherapy before surgery? The researchers also wanted to know whether this combination of neoadjuvant immunotherapy proves effective for this particular patient group.

Results

The results were promising. Out of the 24 participants, 23 managed to receive their surgery within the planned 12 weeks – even patients with larger tumors. One patient had their surgery postponed for four weeks due to the treatment’s side effects. The main research question could be answered with a “yes”.

The study also showed that neoadjuvant immunotherapy is effective in treating locally invasive bladder cancer: the majority of tumors shrank significantly. 11 out of 24 patients (46%) even showed an absence of tumor cells in tissue taken after surgery for analysis by a pathologist: a pathological complete response.

Two out of 24 patients unfortunately relapsed within the year. This percentage is lower than what can be expected at this stage of the illness. One participant has since passed away from their metastatic cancer.

Which biomarkers make the difference?

The next important question: why do some patients have a better response to immunotherapy than others? Which biomarkers are involved that can help us predict a good response to the therapy? One of the benefits of neoadjuvant immunotherapy is that it allows for the opportunity to analyze these markers at a molecular level at the start of the treatment (in a tissue biopsy) and after surgery (in the resection margins removed during surgery).

The researchers looked into various known biomarkers that have proven to predict immunotherapy resistance for other cancer types, or (very) early stage bladder cancer. This led to the discovery that T cell density in the tumor, that can be a biomarker predicting the success if monotherapy with check point blockers in patients with (very) early stage bladder cancer, do not affect the combination therapy they researched.

Looking for the right ratio

The NABUCCO trial will continue: a follow-up study will try to find the best balance between efficacy and safety by trying to establish the right ratio of drugs that are used in this type of combination therapy: ipilimumab and nivolumab.

Several large-scale trials will need to follow before the results can be validated. Neoadjuvant immunotherapy will only be available as treatment as part of a trial for bladder cancer as well as other types of cancer.

The NABUCCO trial has been running since 2018, and is a investigor-initiated study, developed by medical oncologist and researcher Michiel van der Heijden and conducted by physician-scientist Nick van Dijk and researcher Alberto Gil-Jimenez, in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of physicians and researchers.

References: Van Dijk, N., Gil-Jimenez, A., Silina, K. et al. Preoperative ipilimumab plus nivolumab in locoregionally advanced urothelial cancer: the NABUCCO trial. Nat Med (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-1085-z

Provided by Netherlands Cancer Institute

Tubarial Glands: New Organ Discovered in Human Body (Biology)

Our body contains a pair of previously overlooked and clinically relevant nasopharyngeal salivary glands, according to new research led by the Netherlands Cancer Institute and the University of Amsterdam. Sparing these newly-identified glands, named the ‘tubarial glands,’ in patients receiving radiotherapy may provide an opportunity to improve their quality of life.

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.

This illustration shows the location of the newly-identified tubarial glands. Image credit: Netherlands Cancer Institute.

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.”

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.

References: Matthijs H. Valstar, 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, Wouter V. Vogel,
The tubarial salivary glands: A potential new organ at risk for radiotherapy,
Radiotherapy and Oncology,
2020, ISSN 0167-8140, doi:
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.radonc.2020.09.034.
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167814020308094)

Provided by Netherlands Cancer Institute