Medical Examiner

No, the New Organ Discovery Doesn’t Explain Acupuncture

A new study offers up an intriguing new idea, but we should be careful about how we interpret it.

Acupuncture.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Last week, a new study was published that argued for a new understanding of the human body. Specifically, it posited that the layers of the body that exist between connective tissue and organs—long thought to be densely stacked walls of collagen—are actually a previously unrecognized matrix of fluid. The discovery has some calling for a rewrite of anatomy books to include this newfound “organ,” collectively called the interstitium. The new body part is described in a press release about the discovery as “a highway of moving fluid” that “may explain why cancer that invades it becomes much more likely to spread.”

Whether or not the discovery warrants a paradigm shift and new textbooks is contentious. “The claim that it is a hitherto undiscovered organ, and the largest one ever at that, seems a stretch,” cautioned one pathologist in an email to the Scientist. The Daily Beast reported that eight journals rejected the paper before it was accepted by Scientific Reports, an online, high-volume, open-source journal from the publishers of Nature that assesses a paper’s merit based on its scientific and methodological validity. (It’s common for journals to reject scientific manuscripts upon first submission, though submitting to eight journals before acceptance is a bit unusual.) Less controversial than the “new organ” classification is the idea that the theory presented warrants further research. As the authors suggest in the paper, these fluid-filled spaces may serve as “shock absorbers” for organs, which might mean that direct sampling of the interstitial fluid could be a powerful diagnostic tool.

What exactly has been discovered, and what this discovery says about human health, is far from settled, though that has not stopped the lay press from reporting somewhat breathlessly on the “new organ.” The excitement and coverage are not terribly surprising, but what is a bit unnerving is how a great deal of this coverage has included an uncritical account of the unsubstantiated musings of one of the paper’s senior authors, Dr. Neil Theise.

Theise is a liver pathologist and stem cell researcher. He has long been interested in legitimizing alternative medicine practices. He’s collaborated with alternative medicine and New Age movement mogul Deepak Chopra on articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos, even speaking at a Chopra Center seminar. In 2003, he wrote in Tricycle, a western Buddhist perspective magazine, on how his meditations helped him discover “the synergy between dharma practice and scientific inquiry.”

In offering comment on his new paper to the news media, Theise has speculated on how his new findings could relate to acupuncture. The same Daily Beast story, for example, notes that the discovery “could explain many of modern medicine’s mysteries, often dismissed by the establishment” and quotes Theise saying that the “energetic healing jolt” of acupuncture “may be traced to the interstitium.” Several other outlets, including CNN, IFLScience, Science Friday, and Business Insider included Theise’s musings on the interstitium’s potential to explain acupuncture and complementary medicine.

Note that the paper doesn’t once mention acupuncture, or complementary medicine. (A representative for the authors did not reply to a request for comment by the time of publication.) Equally relevant: The evidence for acupuncture is extremely thin. It is not considered a legitimate field of scientific practice within the medical community. As Harriet Hall wrote in Slate in 2012:

Acupuncture has been tested repeatedly and found wanting. Studies have shown that it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles, and it doesn’t matter whether you pierce the skin. Stimulating intact skin with toothpicks or electricity works just as well. The crucial factor seems to be whether patients believe they are getting acupuncture.

The claimed benefits of acupuncture range from treating infertility to aiding smoking cessation, but the evidence argues against its usefulness for anything but easing pain and possibly nausea. A recent comprehensive review of the literature by Edzard Ernst found little evidence that acupuncture is even truly effective for pain. He also found 95 published cases of serious adverse effects, including death. There is a double standard here: The quality of evidence offered to support acupuncture would not pass muster for a proposed prescription drug.

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.

Scientific advances like this one are too often ripe for exploitation. Consider the microbiome. Research into the microbial communities that live in and on our bodies is a burgeoning but young field. But even though we know that our actions influence the microbes in our bodies, which in turn affect our health, it’s far too early to claim that we know how to harness our microbiome to solve specific health problems. Yet there are already a slew of popular books, diet plans, supplements, and seminars purporting to tap into our bacterial colonies to tackle depression and anxiety, dump extra pounds, alleviate specific gastrointestinal disorders, and more. 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? We’ll have to wait and see, but it certainly seems likely.

Kavin Senapathy is a science communicator and mom of two living in Madison, Wisconsin.