Researchers in the U.S. have discovered a "new" organ in the human body which may cast some light on how tumours spread, raising hopes that in the future it will be possible to detect them earlier on.
They suspect the fluid-filled spaces may act like shock absorbers that prevent the tearing of tissue in organs, muscles and vessels as they move during normal functioning.
Not only could the finding reshape our understanding of the human body, but scientists say it could help to explain why cancer is more likely to spread when it invades certain areas.
Lymph, a fluid containing illness-fighting white blood cells, drains into the human lymphatic system and the interstitium may be the source of this fluid transfer.
More than half of this is found within the cells, and another seventh inside the heart, blood vessels, lymph nodes, and lymph vessels. 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.
Scientists had not previously shown that there was a unified system for moving that water, because they "didn't know what they were looking at", Theise told LiveScience.com. The current research team found that the removal of fluid as slides are made causes the connective protein meshwork surrounding once fluid-filled compartments to pancake, like the floors of a collapsed building. "For a body part to officially become an organ, a consensus would need to develop around the idea as more researchers study it", study author Dr. Neil Theise, a professor of pathology at New York University Langone School of Medicine, told Live Science. "This finding has potential to drive dramatic advances in medicine, including the possibility that the direct sampling of interstitial fluid may become a powerful diagnostic tool", Theise said.
The new work is based on the use of a relatively new technology called a "probe-based confocal laser endomicroscopy" or pCLE.
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These did not appear to match any known structures.
This surprising discovery led Carr-Locke and Benias to walk the images into the office of their partnering pathologist, Theise.
It was while conducting routine endoscopies of patients that doctors noticed that the tissue surrounding the bile duct, which should have been fairly solid and dense, was actually covered in an intriguing pattern.
It's long remained undetected due to dependence the field's dependence on the examination of fixed tissue on microscopic slides, according to the researhcers.
Researchers collected tissues samples of bile ducts from 12 cancer patients during surgery. When the tissue samples were removed from the body, they were quickly frozen, which allowed the fluid-filled spaces to stay open so the researchers could see them under a microscope. The cells lining the space are also unusual, perhaps responsible for creating the supporting collagen bundles around them, say the authors.
Theise says the cells may also be mesenchymal stem cells, which are known to be capable of contributing to the formation of scar tissue observed in inflammatory diseases.