Meet the interstitium: Scientists say they've found the body's largest organ

Wayne CurryMar 29, 2018

The interstitium is fluid-filled compartments found just beneath the skin, and could rival our dermis for the biggest organ in the body.

"Now, it's clear that by looking in the living tissue at the microscopic level with this new confocal laser endomicroscopy ... that space is fully expanded and filled with fluid", NY professor of pathology and study co-author Dr Neil Theise said.

A new study published today says the interstitium is a network of fluid filled tubes all around the body which could act as a shock absorber.

"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"). An organ is a group of different tissues that work together to carry out a specific function. However Theise's research reportedly shows that space is actually a scaffolding of collagen that's filled with water. They came across interstitium while they were studying a patient's bile duct for signs of cancer.

The team says their findings mean that that numerous normal and abnormal activities of different organs need to be reconsidered to include the newly discovered role that the nearby interstitium appears to play.

According to reports, the interstitium protects the body's organs, muscles and other tissues from "bumps and shocks".

This system drains into the lymphatic system, and is said to be the source of lymph - vital to the functioning of inflammation-causing immune cells.

Theise and colleagues are already investigating the developmental anatomy of the interstitium in mice, as well as looking more in depth at how it appears in other tissues in both animal models and people.

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The new organ contains strong (collagen) and flexible (elastin) connective tissue proteins.

Scientists had previously believe the tissue was a simple layer of connective tissue.

For this experiment, the team collected tissue specimens of bile ducts from 12 cancer patients who were undergoing surgery to remove the pancreas and the bile duct.

Using a newer technology called probe-based confocal laser encomicroscopy, the researchers were able to view living tissues instead of fixed ones.

The organ's structure and functionality may help researchers learn why certain types of cancer - such as skin, breast and stomach cancers - spread and lead to improved treatments against aggressive cancers. The patterned tissue had dark, branching bands surrounding large, dye-filled polygonal spaces. As New Science reports, one of the teams carrying out an endoscopy had expected to find that "the bile duct is surrounded by a hard, dense wall of tissue". Such examination is described as "in vivo", meaning it takes place inside a living organism, rather than on dead tissue on a slide.

"These anatomic structures may be important in cancer metastasis, edema, fibrosis and mechanical functioning of many or all tissues and organs", the study's authors wrote.

In addition to protecting organs, scientists suspect the network may also assist in the spread of cancer cells. Researchers said interstitium could significantly advance the understanding of cancer and many other diseases.

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