Modern research technology has led to the discovery of a long-misunderstood organ that could be full of answers to questions doctors have had for centuries.
The organ, known as the interstitium, is the largest organ in the body and is full of fluid that cushions organs. Scientists had a feeling such a structure existed for years but were unable to study it due to the limitations of previous medical tools. A new article in Scientific Reports is the first to classify the structure as an organ and explain how it works.
Neil Theise, a pathologist at New York University studying the interstitium, has found a potential link between the organ and the ways that certain types of cancer spread.
"It's a fluid cell highway," he explained. "When [cancerous cells] get into this layer, that's when they spread."
Cancerous cells attack the body by rapidly multiplying and are at their most deadly when they reach the lymph nodes. By this point, treatment becomes very difficult and chances of survival decrease. It's ideal to catch the mutated cells before they reach the lymph nodes, but some types of cancer, such as urinary cancer, are not possible to screen.
Theise hopes that if the cells are entering the bloodstream via the interstitium, they may leave a trace of protein in the fluid surrounding much of the body. Doctors can sample this fluid and test for cancerous cells before they reach the lymph nodes and become terminal.
Research on the interstitium still has a long way to go, but Theise believes that many answers lie in the research to come. The organ's structure and functionality may help researchers learn why certain cancers — such as skin, breast and stomach — spread and help doctors treat aggressive cancers.
The research may also help explain other medical mysteries, such as the effectiveness of acupuncture and where lymphatic fluid originates.