Is the News of a New Organ in the Human Body “Unproven and Probably False”? April 13, 2018

Is the News of a New Organ in the Human Body “Unproven and Probably False”?

Two weeks ago, an odd bit of science news made headlines around the world. Supposedly, researchers had discovered a large, previously overlooked organ in the human body. They dubbed it the interstitium.

Scientists have identified a new human organ hiding in plain sight, in a discovery they hope could help them understand the spread of cancer within the body. Layers long thought to be dense, connective tissue are actually a series of fluid-filled compartments researchers have termed the “interstitium.”

These compartments are found beneath the skin, as well as lining the gut, lungs, blood vessels and muscles, and join together to form a network supported by a mesh of strong, flexible proteins.

New analysis published in the journal Scientific Reports is the first to identify these spaces collectively as a new organ and try to understand their function. …

The researchers realized traditional methods for examining body tissues had missed the interstitium because the “fixing” method for assembling medical microscope slides involves draining away fluid — therefore destroying the organ’s structure. Instead of their true identity as bodywide, fluid-filled shock absorbers, the squashed cells had been overlooked and considered a simple layer of connective tissue.

Various science scribes cautioned that the interstitium shouldn’t really be called an organ… but that isn’t the only pushback against the improbable discovery.

One defender of the scientific method in particular, the surgical oncologist and researcher David Gorski (nom de blog Orac) theorizes that news of the interstitium’s existence may be a more or less deliberate backdoor into a world of medical nonsense. According to Gorski, Neil Theise, an acupuncture proponent and Zen-Buddhist liver pathologist whose observations launched the study, is a sometime Deepak Chopra associate who has been known to hold forth on

… the relationship of qualia to subtle energy fields, the chakras, 
the Buddhist wheel of awareness, and sacred geometry.

Gorski points out that the interstitium paper was rejected by eight journals before it found a home at Scientific Reports, a publication he describes as

… an open access journal published by Nature Publishing Group that has been known for a propensity to publish dubious studies promoting New Age nonsense and even antivaccine pseudoscience.

It’s certainly true that Theise, a senior author of the interstitium paper, doesn’t always operate within the bounds of accepted medical knowledge. He claims, for instance, that some recipients of a liver transplant also receive memories of their donors. That is, Theise says, certain memories that are unique to person A actually appear in person B after an A-to-B liver transplant.

The mind boggles.

Gorski’s reservations about the interstitium study increased as he learned more about Theise’s presumed susceptibility to woo.

I’m a hell of a lot more skeptical that this is a real finding that will stand up to scrutiny by other scientists. … I now strongly suspect that Theise “discovered” the interstitium because it is the sort of discovery that confirms his preexisting beliefs and provides him a means of “explaining” how acupuncture and other alternative medicine can supposedly produce systemic effects from local manipulation, because, above all, he believes that acupuncture works even though it is only a theatrical placebo.

Indeed, until I see other scientists not associated with Deepak Chopra reproduce some of Theise’s key findings, I’m just going to file this “discovery” of the “interstitium” in the “unproven and probably false” category.

Over at Slate, science journalist Kavin Senapathy has misgivings too. Hers are more muted than Gorski’s, and her beef appears to be more with the breathless media coverage about the interstitium than with the study’s authors.

That one of the paper’s senior authors is also an alternative-medicine devotee doesn’t mean the new discovery isn’t important or worth further investigation. But it does raise the question of whether it’s prudent for the lay press to discuss new knowledge within the framework of a researcher’s personal biases, especially without scrutiny. The biggest problem with most of these news stories’ references to acupuncture is that they take as their premise that the practice works, and the medical community just hasn’t yet figured out why.

New York magazine’s headline, for example, offered up the somewhat declarative question of, “Do We Finally Understand How Acupuncture Works?” and the story that followed again took the practice’s efficacy as a given. But this doesn’t reflect the current state of the evidence, which suggests that it is almost entirely a placebo effect.

Senapathy asks

Will naturopaths, acupuncturists, supplement sellers, and miracle-diet hucksters add the interstitium to their arsenal of alternative-health parlance and wield knowledge gaps to peddle the latest and greatest way to optimize our newly discovered organ?

It seems likely. “Buyer beware” is always good advice.

Want to delve into the original research? The interstitium paper is here. Worthwhile skeptical takes include those of Michael Joyce and Claire Maldarelli.

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