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Scientists Have Discovered a New Organ in the Human Body. What is the Interstitium?
It’s not a second stomach or a mini-brain. But scientists have discovered an important new organ that may play a critical role in how many tissues and other organs do their jobs, as well as in some diseases like cancer.
In a study published in Scientific Reports, a New York University-led team of researchers describe the interstitium, which is a series of connected, fluid-filled spaces found under skin as well as throughout the gut, lungs, blood vessels and muscles.
The bubble wrap-like network only became visible when the pathologists used a new laser endoscope, called a confocal laser endomicroscope, that allowed them to see microscopic tissues in living people. Most studies of tissues missed the interstitium because they rely on biopsies of tissues that are then dried and fixed onto microscope slides; the desiccated samples never showed the fluid-filled spaces.
But when the endoscopic laser was used to remove the pancreas and bile duct in a dozen patients with cancer, the odd spaces became obvious.
In the study, the authors speculate that the spaces could be important for a number of functions, including generating the collage that supports cells in certain tissues, as well as housing the stem cells that rush in to repair damaged tissues. They may also play a role in conducting electrical signals as cells move and stretch. Because the spaces form a fluid-highway linking tissues and organs, it may also explain why some cancers, if they invade the spaces, spread more quickly than others.
So if this is exactly what it says on the tin, how significant is this?
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Sounds like a more primitive version of our lymph system.
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Well, first of all, it's worth mentioning that designating this as an "organ" is premature; it's only really the media coverage of the study saying this, and at this point it is way too soon to say what the scientific consensus on how to classify this system will be.
Practically speaking, the immediate discovery here is that a network of material already known to exist in the human body is potentially imbued with attributes that provide it with a wider range of functions than had previously been accepted. Specifically, this "interstitium" is a dense layer of collagen-rich tissue that is distributed widely throughout the body; this tissue has been known to exist for decades, but had generally been considered to serve a purely structural role. Now, this study surmises that this tissue serves a wider range of functions, notably as a conduit for lymph. To be honest, based on what I have read, it seems to me that this tissue is more properly considered to be a sub-classification of the lymphatic system rather than a new "organ" in its own right, though given the ambiguity in what actually constitutes an "organ" it isn't entirely unreasonable to make a case for such.
Best case scenario is that greater understanding of this network will help us understand the mechanisms of certain pathologies (notably the metastasis of cancer), greatly aiding us in our ability to identify and treat them. However, there is also the possibility that understanding this network only serves to add another complicated system of variables into our model of how the human body functions and not providing much enlightenment in and of itself. Ultimately, I think any apt scientific observation of this scale (assuming that the science is accurate and reproducible, which at this point isn't a given) will be significant at least in the long-run, regardless of whether or not it has any immediate benefits.