The organ, which the team has named interstitium, is a network of fluid-filled tubes around the body which is believed to act as a carrier system for cancerous cells.
That fluid and the tissues connecting them are called the interstitium (pronounced "inter-STISH-um"), and they're found throughout the body, both just below the skin and in the digestive, respiratory and urinary systems.
These compartments are supported by a network of strong connective tissue proteins (collagen) and flexible ones (elastin) and can act as shock absorbers that prevent tissues from tearing as organs, muscles, and vessels are compressed, pump or beat.
Scientists said in a study published Tuesday that they may have stumbled on a previously unknown organ - one of the biggest in the human body and one that could significantly advance our understanding of cancer and many other diseases.
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Image of fresh-frozen human bile duct (left) shows collagen bundles in blue; the asterisks mark fluid-filled spaces of the interstitium. That highway can transport cells all throughout the body - and that includes cancer cells.
In 2015, endoscopists Petros Benias and David Carr-Locke, then working at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center in NY, were investigating a patient's bile duct for signs of cancer, using a new technique called confocal laser endomicroscopy that allows for close examination of living tissue. They also found similar structures around other tissues and organs. The new study, he said, expands the concept of the interstitium by showing these structured, fluid-filled spaces within tissues, and is the first to define the interstitium as an organ in and of itself. The lymphatic system is a network of fine vessels that drains fluid (called lymph) from the various tissues of the body into the blood, taking away waste products and also bacteria and viruses.
Both the United Kingdom and global media have had a field day, with The Sun saying the "organ" hadn't "been noticed until now", despite the fact that the term interstitium has been used to describe this tissue for years.
To other scientists, the findings are promising, but more research still needs to be done around the interstitium.
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Normally, scientists slice thin samples of tissue and then dye them so they can be seen better. Before the pancreas and the bile duct were removed, patients underwent confocal microscopy for live tissue imaging. It was a series of interconnected cavities in this submucosal tissue level that not match any known anatomy. Such examination is described as "in vivo", meaning it takes place inside a living organism, rather than on dead tissue on a slide.
Theise and his team are now conducting further analysis on this newly discovered fluid to see how it might aid physicians in detecting (and therefore treating) cancers earlier on. Theise explained that it is already known that cancer first spreads to the outermost part of the organ or the skin before it starts to spread.
Dr. Petros Constantinos Benias, co-lead author of the study, an assistant professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell Health said that this study opens up new avenues of research in diagnostics as well as in deeper understanding of disease pathology, inflammation and cancer.
They add, "These anatomic structures may be important in cancer metastasis, edema, fibrosis, and mechanical functioning of many or all tissues and organs".
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