WA role in new study bringing hope to lymphedema sufferers

WA scientist, Professor Minghao Zheng (Perron Institute and The University of Western Australia) has contributed to a successful tissue engineering study that holds promise for improved treatment of lymphedema.

He collaborated with Professor Shulamit Levenberg (dean, Faculty of Biomedical Engineering, Israel Institute of Technology) to develop a fast and simple method for engineering lymphatic vasculature using collagen based scaffold.

The lymph network is a key element of the body’s immune system. Damage to lymphatic vessels often occurs following cancer treatment (surgical or radiation therapy) resulting in localised tissue swelling, usually of arm or leg.  

Lymphedema is a common and debilitating complication of breast cancer treatments, affecting one in every five breast cancer patients. It leads to significant disfiguring, pain and discomfort, and decreased range of motion.  

Professor Zheng pioneered the development of collagen scaffolds and cell therapy to treat cartilage, tendon and ligament and peripheral nerve injury, and is a global leader in regeneration of tendon and cartilage using a patient’s own stem cells.  

He said there were no curative treatment options for lymphedema and common non-surgical interventions provided suboptimal outcomes.  

The recent study’s objective was to fabricate a functional lymphatic tissue graft with use of a collagen scaffold, CelGro, and evaluate its potential to integrate with host tissue. 

“The outcome is a promising step toward advancing the treatment of lymphedema and other lymphatic-related conditions,” he said. 

“Lymphatic vessel networks are important for various biological processes, so incorporating them into engineered constructs can have both research and clinical implications. 

“As well as relieving lymphedema symptoms, engineering functional lymphatic vessels holds great potential for treating some other conditions, such as repairing damaged tissue after heart attack and improving dermal skin grafts.  

“Engineered lymphatic tissue grafts could also serve as in vitro disease models and drug testing systems, enabling enhanced study of inflammatory responses, cancer and other processes involving the lymphatic system,” Professor Zheng said. 

The novel study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, a highly regarded peer-reviewed scientific journal.  

The project received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.  

The collaboration between Professors Zheng and Levenberg was made possible by the Neurotrauma Research Program and Raine Medical Research Foundation sponsoring Levenberg’s visit to Perth a few years ago.