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‘Newfound’ organ = old school hype. What you need to know

Michael Joyce is a writer-producer with HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

Last year it was this:

This week it’s this:

Many of these grossly misguided (aka wrong) headlines were apparently spawned by this grandiose news release from NYU Langone Health/NYU School of Medicine:

The vast majority of the news coverage I read jumped on “new organ … largest organ … cancer.” This wording all comes from the news release:

…the current study is the first to define the interstitium as an organ in its own right, and one of the largest in the body … with implications for the function of all organs, most tissues, and the mechanisms of most major diseases … importantly, the finding that this layer is a highway of moving fluid may explain why cancer that invades it becomes much more likely to spread.

Tweet by @ktmontone • pathologist

What’s not new here is the interstitium. It’s been known about for centuries. It’s that fluid-filled space between our cells that connects to the lymphatic system (a transport system that plays a key role in our fluid balance, immune system, and nutrient absorption). When doctors mention ‘edema’ they’re talking about fluid building up in the interstitium. Or, when they check the lymph nodes of cancer patients, doctors are looking for evidence that the cancer has spread via this system.

What is (relatively) new in this study is that researchers are now able to use tiny, flexible microscopes (called, “laser endomicroscopy”) to view the tissues and fluids of the interstitium “in vivo,” that is, how they look and function in their natural state. Historically, doctors have had to remove tissues from the body in order to evaluate the interstitium. But the tissues need to be chemically processed and that changes how the interstitium appears on slides viewed under a microscope.

Benjamin Mazer MD

“I think this represents an incremental, but very worthwhile advance in allowing us to view parts of the body microscopically before even removing the tissue,” said Benjamin Mazer, MD, a pathology resident at Yale who cautions he’s speaking for himself, not his employer, and who believes the study was well done but the news release was not handled well.

“People claiming either the mesentery or the interstitium are a ‘new organ’ are relying on a specific definition of an organ as ‘a group of tissues with a unique structure performing a specialized task, like the heart or liver’ (NBC article). But I think the focus on a ‘new organ’ is marketing semantics. It does not accurately represent the way scientists and doctors talk about anatomy and physiology. I’ve spoken with other doctors about this study, all of whom were exasperated by the marketing of this ‘new organ’ in what’s otherwise a good study.”

As for this technology “explaining how cancer spreads” or being an “aid in cancer diagnosis” that is speculative at this point. Such speculation was not helped by co-author Niel Theise MD, a pathologist at NYU School of Medicine, quoted in the above mentioned Fox News coverage as saying: “We have a new window on the mechanism of tumor spread … once they get in, it’s like they’re on a water slide.”

interstitium organ

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Comments (1)

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bev heywood

April 2, 2018 at 4:10 am

Thank you for this review! As a retired pathologist, I read the article about a ‘new organ’ and was literally scratching my head. I thought maybe I had been retired too long. And thank you for clarifying what the new information, i.e. the microscopy, really was. I worry about our society these days; science seems to be corrupted by the same forces corrupting our societal dialogue in general.