Media outlets the world over are touting the “discovery” of a new organ in humans. I’m not alone in protesting,
The new organ claim is not made in the research paper
Importantly, the research paper doesn’t claim a new organ — that’s a claim made outside of the research paper, made by one of the authors.
The uncritical repeating of this claim is disappointing, if sadly typical of a social media-driven fuss. That’s click-bait, right?
The research shows the presence of collagen-bundle structures in the interstitial space. The paper speculates these might have a “shock-absorbing” role.
How the research was assessed matters
Manuscripts are not assessed based on their perceived importance, significance or impact; the research community makes such judgements after publication.
SciReports main criteria is that manuscripts be “technically sound in methodology and analysis”.
The ‘importance’ of the work will not have been assessed. In any event, the claim of a new organ isn’t made in the paper. That’s one author’s extrapolation made directly to media and social media, not in the scientific literature. It’s absence in the research paper ought to signal caution.
Good science communication should be aware of the different publishing practices of different scientific journals. Those presenting science in media should also be aware of how scientific advances actually proceed. Being careful about personal extrapolations is also wise.
Scientific papers are arguments for a case lodged, not ‘discoveries’
Scientific papers don’t really offer ‘discoveries’ as in, “scientists discover new organ”. At the time of publication what is happening is that an argument for a case has been lodged. Think of it as filing a case at court room, with the rest of the scientific community as the jury.
The real review comes over the weeks, months, and years that follow. Media, of course, like to announce each new thing as a ‘discovery’, that has been ‘solved’ or ‘proven’, and are prone taking on soft claims.
In this particular case, it’s clear journalists pitching it as a new organ haven’t read the actual paper or, alternatively, haven’t understood it. The research paper makes no claim for a new organ. None. That claim comes from outside of the paper. It should be quite clear the author is pitching a claim beyond what the research is able to show, too.
I suspect it’d be quite informative were we able to read the peer review for the 8 journals that rejected earlier versions of the manuscript made. After all, what’s going to happen is that we’re going tread that track again, this time in the after-the-publication commentary. And if things go as they typically do, we’ll hear little about that in mainstream media. It’ll be up to specialist publications, and science communicators (like myself) to clear up the mess made. Yet again.
I would guess that in some of those earlier submissions a claim of a new organ was made, and that version of the paper was understandably rejected because the work done can’t support that claim, it would be speculation – and rather grand speculation at that. (The author more-or-less confirms this to The Daily Beast, see link above.)
So what was done?
The interstitium has been known of for around 200 years. It’s also referred to as the interstitial space. It’s well-known, and there is an extensive literature on it, with over 5,000 research papers at PubMed for example. (These will not include the early literature.) We know that roughly a quarter of the water in our bodies lies in this interstitial space. (Even wikipedia has this, and more.)
The Scientist has summarised the observations well,
a new in vivo microscopy technique to present evidence that the human interstitium—the space between cells—is more like a matrix of collagen bundles interspersed with fluid than the densely-packed stacks of connective tissue it appears to be in fixed slides.
News reports have suggested that this interstitium could represent a widespread organ in the body, whose connections with the lymphatic system might be involved in cancer metastasis. While researchers not involved in the study agree that the interstitium likely plays diverse roles in the human body, they are reticent to call it a new organ.
“It is fair to say that histologists [and] pathologists have long known that there is an interstitial space and that it contains fluid,” Anirban Maitra, a pathologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center who did not participate in the work, writes in an email to The Scientist. “The claim that it is a hitherto undiscovered organ, and the largest one ever at that, seems a stretch,” he cautions.
“Most biologists would be reticent to put the moniker of an ‘organ’ on microscopic uneven spaces between tissues that contain fluid. By this definition, the abdominal cavity and pleural spaces should be discrete organs” too, says Maitra.
It’s worth reading the article at The Scientist, it presents a good breakdown of the science. (The overly polite expression of dissent is ‘the form’ in science; privately researchers might put it more bluntly – what is put in public here is actually quite firm by science standards.) Also worth reading is this piece at Discover blogs.
You also need to remember that the researchers froze the samples, which can also create artefacts, too.
More from Theise
At first blush this interview at ResearchGate seems more balanced than others, but Theise’s description of what the work shows is problematic to me,
Theise: The definition of “organ” is imprecise, but usually implies that there is a unity and uniqueness of structure or of function. This space has both: unique properties and structures not seen elsewhere and functions that are highly specific and dependent on the unique structures and cell types that form it.
While they might have shown the presence of a recurring structure—something that still needs to be confirmed by others—‘function’ usually means biochemical action or similar. Their research paper does describe a couple of physical properties, but any function for that is speculation.
The work might suggest something about the nature of the interstitial space that other experimental techniques can’t easily reveal. It might also be present in many tissues. Neither of these (alone) make it a new organ.
It’s also worth remembering that distributed networks in our bodies are more typically referred to as ‘systems’ rather than ‘organs’. The vascular system, the lymphatic system, and so on. The term ‘interstitial space’ is used in a similar way. I don’t see how this is changed from this study.
What else might be affecting this claim
So why would this author make this claim? It is an extraordinary claim to make, one I think few biologists would offer.
One possible clue might lie in his social media efforts. In these he shouts out having discovered a new organ — tagging well-known ‘new age spiritual’ people or groups (for want of a better term; see the names after each ‘@’).
I was a little surprised about this at the time; these people didn’t seem to be connected to the research.
A little digging reveals that Neil Theise is associated with the Chopra Center, devoted to “well-being of body, mind and spirit”, using practices like Ayurveda, “consciousness-based teachings of Vedic”, and so on. His publications have also taken this direction for a number of years now, with articles discussing integration ‘Eastern’ ‘sciences’ (some would say mysticism) with ‘Western’ science.
He also has presented talks on “mind-body healing, Ayurveda, and integratice health care” [sic],
There’s more of this ilk elsewhere.
I’ve nothing against that things look different when taken from different perspectives in itself — that’s a fairly trivial observation, really — or complexity theory, and so on, but you always have to be careful with extrapolations, and be critically aware that some things really don’t ‘integrate’.
My overall impression is of a person with a liking for these ‘Eastern’ practices (his call), who would like to make a ‘discovery’ that would ‘integrate’ these things with “Western science’.
You see something of this wishing in his interview at ResearchGate,
There are many complementary medicine techniques that have been proven to have therapeutic efficacy, but in the absence of mechanistic explanations of the sort prized in Western medicine, remain poorly understood, or even scoffed at, overall. Acupuncture, pulse diagnosis in Tibetan and Chinese medicine practices, myofascial release therapy, for example, are all techniques that may find some mechanistic explanations in the interstitial structure and properties.
Arguably this speculation (“that may”) would be helped by it being a body-wide new organ that would ‘transmit’ interventions to elsewhere in the body, rather than a common structural feature of different organs.
(This also might, in part, explain speculative responses to questions on social media.)
Media and over-pitched claims
A lot of work goes into research, and at the time of publication it’s only human to speculate what your work might led to. Most have the sense to limit that to their close peers, and fairly are cautious about extrapolations to media or the public. Some people talk it to everyone, I guess. You’d wish media would do better than uncritically flick things on, though.
Addendum (added after first published version)
Online Dr Bates has pointed out on Twitter,
This paper reported elegant imaging of the interstitium, but it’s not a new organ and it’s easy to calculate its anticipate volume from old water labeling studies. The speculation about interstitium, lymphatics and cancer are also not new
While checking older literature I encountered one of the older calculations of the volume that she refers to. Others have made similar comments about the relationship with the lymphatic system and cancer.
Yet more commentary from experts working in this area can be found in this BuzzFeed post, That “New Organ” Everyone Is Freaking Out About Is Probably Not.
Other articles at Code for life
1. Being a careful science communicator, I fact checked ‘smorgan’. The Urban Dictionary suggested this (adult reading warning!). I’m quite sure that’s not Eliabeth’s intended meaning, that she was just writing a rather endearing onomatopoeia. Similarly, you have to suspect that Urban Dictionary definition is someone’s idea of a joke.
2. It seems to me that a simpler explanation is that they enable water to move around cells more consistently. (It’d be consistent with the role of interstitial water.) I’m also wary of the idea of sacs as force buffers, as to do this they’d have to restrain water movement in and out of each water pocket, and it’s hard to see how the mere presence of collagen bundles is going to do this.
3. I’d load a screen cap of the tweet, but WordPress is currently point-blank refusing to load it. Will try update this at a later date.
The featured image is a public domain image from Wikipedia, ‘Front view of the viscera’.