Scientists have discovered a new organ in the human body that might be key in the quest to find a cure for cancer. The previously undiscovered biological structure is a network of channels that interconnect to carry fluid around the body. And this intricate web may help spread deadly cancer cells through the body.
According to a report published by New Scientist in March 2018, the organ was discovered completely by accident. It was the result of a routine endoscopy, the practice of inserting a tiny camera into the gastrointestinal tract. It’s a procedure that has evolved over time.
When the procedure was performed in the past, a single endoscope (a super-thin probe topped with a camera) was fed down the throat to explore the body’s internal organs. Today, the same approach incorporates lasers which illuminate one’s insides with sensors. These sensors then examine the patterns reflected back to them.
Modern endoscopies, therefore, allow doctors to get an ultra close-up view of the body’s internal organs and tissue simultaneously. On this particular occasion a patient’s gut was under examination. And as the team of doctors took a closer look, they noticed something they had never observed before.
What the doctors had expected to see was a thick, hard wall of matter encasing the bile duct. But what they saw instead was a bizarre set of patterns for which they had no explanation. Not knowing what they had witnessed, they sought specialist help to determine what it was.
The doctors handed what they had found over to Neil Theise, who works in the pathology department of the New York University School of Medicine. In general terms, pathologists specialize in the diagnosis of disease by studying a combination of tissue and bodily fluids.
Intrigued by what the group had found, Dr. Theise performed his own experiment, this time with himself as the guinea pig. Using the same endomicroscope, he took a look under the surface of his nose. To his surprise, the results he saw were very comparable to those the doctors had presented to him.
It led to Theise examining other parts of the body. His findings suggest that the peculiar patterns the doctors had seen were the result of a fluid traveling through channels interconnected throughout the entire body. This network effectively constitutes a a previously undetected organ.
Furthermore, Theise believes that this newly-discovered organ surrounds every tissue in the body. Taking his findings with those of the doctors who made the discovery, it is thought that roughly a fifth of the water contained in the human body is present solely in this “new” organ – identified as the largest in the human body.
Specialists have known for some time that cells carry more than 50 percent of the body’s fluid. Moreover, some 15 percent is present in the lymphatic system, as well as in blood vessels and the heart. Importantly, not only does this study identify that the body’s remaining fluid exists in this web of channels, but it is also the first to identify the network as an actual organ.
“We think they act as shock absorbers,” Theise told New Scientist. That is, the fluid in the network of channels – or the organ – acts as a cushion to protect tissues from the everyday wear and tear of the body’s natural functions. In this way, as muscles flex and stretch, and fluids are pumped through veins, other organs are protected.
The group of doctors also believe that this organ plays a key role in the spread of cancer. That’s because any cancer cells breaking away from their original tissue or organ could find their way into the network of channels. The fluid present in the network would then transport the cells around the body, giving them the opportunity to attach themselves to other organs.
Moreover, the channels can carry cancerous cells straight to the lymphatic system, which plays an important role in the fight against illness. The lymphatic system makes up part of the circulatory system, and is a vital part of the body’s immune system. Its function is to carry fluids straight to the heart.
The new organ, the scientists found, drains directly into the lymphatic system. And lymph fluid is crucial to the working order of the body’s immune cells and the functions they perform in fighting infections and disease. Clearly, then, the invasion of a hostile presence would not be good news.
Moreover, if cancer cells penetrate the lymphatic system, the news is usually bad. As Theise described to New Scientist, “Once they get in, it’s like they’re on a water slide.” The organ is effectively a playground for cancer cells to travel directly to other parts of the body.
But to put a brighter spin on the discovery of the organ, it does offer doctors a better idea of how cancer might metastasize. As Theise explained, “We have a new window on the mechanism of tumor spread.” And with this new understanding will come new ways of preventing cancer from advancing.
So, how had doctors never seen this organ before? Let’s not forget, it carries around a fifth of the body’s fluid and interconnects throughout every limb, muscle and organ. You’d think that would be too big to stay hidden for so long, right? Well, doctors have a theory.
It is thought that more standard endoscopy procedures caused the fluid to drain from the channels. And with the very thing that gave structure to the organ absent, the network had nothing to support it, which in turn caused it to collapse. This absence of fluid would also have made the channels resemble a solid piece of tissue.
“This fixation artifact of collapse has made a fluid-filled tissue type throughout the body appear solid in biopsy slides for decades, and our results correct for this to expand the anatomy of most tissues,” Dr. Theise explained to EurekAlert! in March 2018. What’s more, he believes analyzing the fluids could be a powerful tool in disease diagnosis.
In addition to its possible role in transporting cancer cells around the body, there are other functions the organ is thought to play a part in. Interestingly, the cells that live in the network are believed to evolve over time, and doctors think this may contribute to the aging of the skin, the stiffening of limbs, and the development of inflammatory diseases. Dr. Theise now intends to learn if this is true – and whether fluid analysis could help early cancer diagnosis.