Lymphedema is a common, yet disabling, condition affecting about four to five million people in North America. Lymphedema is a chronic disease of the lymphatic system that results in disfiguring swelling in one or more parts of the body. Although lymphedema can be a hereditary condition, it also affects cancer treatment survivors, including those of melanoma, prostate, breast and ovarian cancers. Lymphedema is characterized by a chronic inflammation of the affected limb, which becomes highly susceptible to infections. With time and as a consequence of the fluid stasis and inflammation, scar tissue and fat accumulate in the limb, which cause a profound change in its structure.
In 2013, a generous $5-million gift from Dianne and Irving Kipnes, opened the Lymphedema Imaging Suite in the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the University of Calgary. This unique facility is using advanced imaging techniques to study the regulation of the lymphatic system function in health and disease. These world-class microscopes can image events that occur within tissue, in the lymphatic vessels, and in the lymph node.
- Learn more about Lymphedema Awareness Day or join the conversation on Twitter #LymphedemaAwareness
Since 2013, researchers in the Lymphedema Research and Education Program in the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases have unveiled one mechanism whereby inflammation, as it occurs in lymphedema, is able to abrogate lymphatic pumping. They have found that TNF alpha; a protein produced by the body during inflammation, was responsible for changes in the lymphatic system that led to its malfunction, potentially worsening swelling. This work was recently published in the American Journal of Pathology.
They further demonstrated the molecular mechanisms whereby TNF alpha alters the ability of the lymphatic system to eliminate swelling, published in Microcirculation. In another study, they observed that lymph and antigens could travel outside of the lymphatic vessels, through specialized conduits of the fat layer to reach the lymph nodes. These findings suggest that fat tissue could be an alternative therapeutic target in order to improve lymph flow or immune responses in lymphedema and chronic inflammatory diseases.
Progress being made in lymphedema research
Pierre Yves von der Weid, PhD, lymphedema research and education lead at the University of Calgary, says that thanks to the Kipnes’, there is positive progress being made in the area of lymphedema research, and that it is refreshing to see more light being shed onto this under-recognized disease.
"To have Mayor Nenshi proclaim a full day dedicated to raising awareness of lymphedema, shows the importance of studying this debilitating disease,” says von der Weid, a professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology in the Cumming School of Medicine. “There is always a need for further research, education, and increased awareness in order to improve care delivery for lymphedema patients.”
As researchers in the Lymphatic Imaging Suite continue to expand their knowledge on the complex biology of the lymphatic system, their hope is to develop new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches which will help treat those who are suffering.
10 facts about lymphedema
- More North Americans have Lymphedema and lymphatic diseases than AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and ALS — combined.
- Over 300,000 Canadians are affected by some sort of lymphedema.
- Lymphedema will occur in up to 50 per cent of breast cancer survivors, and 100 per cent of those with head and neck cancer.
- Lymphedema can be caused by trauma and is a major issue for our injured military personnel.
- 100 million worldwide suffer from the parasite-borne lymphatic disease called elephantiasis (filariasis).
- The lymphatic system is our immune system’s first defence against infection.
- Lymphedema commonly affects the arms and legs and often leads to life-threatening skin infection called cellulitis.
- Cancer uses the lymphatic system to metastasize. If we stop cancer metastasis, we are on our way to beating cancer.
- Lymphatic research sheds light on AIDS, diabetes, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis and most chronic inflammatory diseases.
- In 2014, Alberta became the first province in Canada to gain publicly funded treatment coverage for all lymphedema patients.