What big picture?
July 17th 2018, 15:57
If you're a doctor—or, better yet, a researcher at a pharmaceutical company—you think you've got human biology nailed. After all, you must know how it all works so that you can develop new drugs and prescribe and treat patients.
And because you've got it all figured out, you can laugh at unscientific alternatives like acupuncture and dismiss them for the quackery they are. Right?
Of course. After all, if you didn't know about the second-largest organ in the human body that explains many bodily processes—even how cancers spread—you'd have to admit you really didn't know what you're doing.
So guess what? Scientists have just 'discovered' the second-largest organ in the body, which had been missed by everyone these past few centuries. Yes, nobody had spotted it, not scientists or biologists, nor doctors or pharmaceutical researchers. And, by the way, this 'missing' organ also explains how acupuncture works.
The missed organ has been called the interstitium, and it's second in size only to the skin. It sits below the top layer of the skin, and it is also found in tissue layers that line the gut, lungs, blood vessels and muscles.
It is a network of interconnected compartments supported by a mesh of strong and flexible proteins.
It's essential for the healthy functioning of all organs and tissues, and it also plays a vital role in the ebb and flow of most diseases, including cancer. And because its protein bundles generate electrical current, the interstitium provides an explanation for how acupuncture works (and probably a few other holistic alternative therapies, too).
One of its roles is to act as a shock absorber that keeps tissues from tearing as they are squeezed, pumped and pulled by organs, muscles and blood vessels. It is the source of lymph, the vital fluid that allows immune cells to function and control inflammatory processes and, when malfunctioning, contributes to diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and a host of other problems.
This highway of moving fluid could also be the transporter system that allows cancer cells to spread through the body.
It's been discovered by pathologist Neil Theise at New York University's School of Medicine (Nobel Prize, anyone?), who analyzed tissue samples from a dozen cancer surgeries on the pancreas and bile duct. As with most important discoveries, he didn't do it on his own. A couple of years back, two endoscopists from the Beth Israel Medical Center noticed something odd when they were examining a patient's bile duct looking for cancer spread. They saw a series of interconnected cavities at the tissue level that wasn't explained by current knowledge of human anatomy—so they showed them to Theise.
So how come everyone has missed it? It's all down to the way biologists review tissue samples, Theise explains. Essentially, the interstitium is in the spaces between the known organs (hence its name), and biologists have focused on fixed tissue on microscope slides, believing it gave "the most accurate view of biological reality." Except, of course, it missed the big picture.1
Before putting a tissue sample under the microscope, biologists prepare the sample with chemicals in a process known as 'fixing,' slice it thinly, and dye it. The trouble is, this process drains away any fluid—and, in doing so, drains away the interstitium.
And there's also the human element. If you don't think it's there, you just don't see it.
For his own analysis, Theise used a different technology, called (deep breath) probe-based confocal laser endomicroscopy, or pCLE, which doesn't use any of the techniques of standard microscopic analysis.
The significance of his discovery isn't lost on Theise. It has "the potential to drive dramatic advances in medicine, including the possibility that the direct sampling of interstitial fluid may become a powerful diagnostic tool."
That, and understanding how many chronic diseases develop, and why holistic medicine—and especially acupuncture—can be so effective. And, of course, how the body works.
A slice or two of humble pie before we all crawl back to the drawing board, everyone?
1 Scientific Reports, 2018; 8: 4947