It’s long been thought that the mesentery — which attaches the stomach, small intestine, pancreas, spleen and other organs to the abdomen — was fragmented. However, new research by Dr. J. Calvin Coffey, Foundation Chair of Surgery at the University of Limerick, is reclassifying something many doctors and medical professionals have believed for centuries.
In a new study published in the journal The Lancet Gastroenterology and Hematology, Coffey found that this part of the digestive system is, in fact, a contiguous organ.
“During the initial research, we noticed in particular that the mesentery, which connects the gut to the body, was one continuous organ,” Coffey said in a statement. “Up to that it was regarded as fragmented, present here, absent elsewhere and a very complex structure. The anatomic description that had been laid down over 100 years of anatomy was incorrect. This organ is far from fragmented and complex. It is simply one continuous structure.”
The mesentery’s job of linking the gut to the rest of the body is a vital task — it carries blood and lymphatic fluid between the intestine and the rest of the body, as well as maintains the position of the intestine so it’s connected to the abdominal wall without being in direct contact.
“Without a mesentery to keep the intestine connected, the intestine would have to attach directly to the body wall,” Coffey said. “It is unlikely that it would be able to contract and relax along its entire length if it were directly in contact. It maintains the intestine in a particular conformation, ‘hitched up,’ so that when you stand up or walk about, it doesn’t collapse into the pelvis and not function.”
Scientists already know that the mesentery plays an important role, such as taking environmental signals from the intestine and orchestrating the body’s response. But more research is needed to determine the extent of its importance.
Additional research would also mean a better definition of the gut membrane’s function, what happens when it functions abnormally, and diseases that impact it. Coffey hopes that his discovery will help mesenteric science to become its own field, much like neurology.
“This is relevant universally as it affects all of us. Up to now there was no such field as mesenteric science,” Coffey said. “Now we have established anatomy and the structure. The next step is the function. If you understand the function you can identify abnormal function, and then you have disease. Put them all together and you have the field of mesenteric science…the basis for a whole new area of science.”
Medical students all around the world are now learning about the mesentery as a continuous organ, after Coffey’s groundbreaking research spurred an update in one of the world’s best-known medical textbooks, Gray’s Anatomy.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.