Further research revealed that these cavities can be found throughout the human body and, as Rachael Rettner of Live Science reports, scientists at New York University's School of Medicine believe the anatomical discovery should be classified as a new organ.
"Our findings necessitate reconsideration of numerous normal functional activities of different organs and of disordered fluid dynamics in the setting of disease, including fibrosis and metastasis", the researchers write in a published paper in Scientific Reports ("Structure and Distribution of an Unrecognized Interstitium in Human Tissues"). The tissue contains interconnected, fluid-filled spaces that are supported by a lattice of thick collagen "bundles", Theise said. "It's part of the body known as the 'interstitium". The team found that the removal of fluid as slides are made makes the connective protein meshwork surrounding once fluid-filled compartments to collapse and appear denser.
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.
Once the team recognized this new space in images of bile ducts, they quickly recognized it throughout the body, wherever tissues moved or were compressed by force. 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 fluid-filled compartments are lined by unusual cells, the researchers note. Histological examinations of colon, stomach, and skin cancers that had metastasized seemingly directly from the interstitial space to the lymph nodes suggested to the authors that the interstitium drains into the lymphatic system.
They say the interstitium plays an important role in carrying lymph, the clear fluid that also travels through lymphatic vessels and that supports immunity.
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The finding may even help researchers in the fight against cancer.
More research is needed to better understand the true function of the interstitium, how it impacts other parts of the body and the disagreements over its organ status.
For the current study, the team collected tissue specimens of bile ducts during twelve cancer surgeries that were removing the pancreas and the bile duct.
The paper describes "an interesting new understanding on human anatomy" where a new technique (Confocal Laser Endomicroscopy) allows for a virtual biopsy of tissue inside in the living body without damaging those cells.
LiveScience notes these discoveries are also reflected in a 2011 study, which signaled the existence of a network of dark fibers in association with several cases of bile duct cancer, but didn't offer an explanation as to what it was. The imaging technique indeed showed the fluid-filled spaces in the connective tissue. Newer approaches enable doctors to use this procedure to get a microscopic look at the tissue inside a person's gut at the same time, with some surprising results.
On a fundamental level, it says, "our findings necessitate reconsideration of numerous normal functional activities of different organs and of disordered fluid dynamics in the setting of disease, including fibrosis and metastasis" - that is, the spread of cancer.