Medical student research on show

A new treatment for lymphoedema under development at Flinders is being presented at an international conference in Italy.

The use of hydrocephelus shunts for the treatment of chronic lymphoedema will be among the Flinders University research projects on show at the 7th International Lymphoedema Framework Conference in Siracusa, Italy from 21-24 June 2017.

The research, led by Doctor of Medicine student Jemima Bell, will be presented by her supervisor Professor Neil Piller, along with several other research projects from the Lymphoedema Clinical Research Unit at Flinders University.

An example of leg lymphedema.

Lymphoedema is a painful medical condition causing the limbs to swell as a result of fluid retention following surgery or radiotherapy associated with cancer treatment or due to trauma, infection or a range of genetic conditions which lead to a poorly developed and functioning lymphatic system.

Professor Piller, the director of the Lymphoedema Clinical Research Unit and MD Advanced Studies student Jemima Bell, are investigating the use of a shunt – tubing with a one-way mechanical valve in the middle – to drain excess lymph from affected parts of the body.

“This medical condition (lymphoedema) is caused by the lymph system’s one-way valves breaking down which stops fluid flowing backwards,” Professor Piller says.

“It then accumulates causing many symptoms such as an increased size of the limb, aching, heavy limbs, problems with recurrent skin infections and significant self-esteem issues.”

The MD student’s research is based on prior work in which these shunts are used to treat fluid build-up in the brain, known as a hydrocephalus shunt. In these cases the tubing is inserted into a space in the brain where the fluid has built up draining it to areas where it can be reabsorbed.

The one way-valve ensures the fluid cannot flow backwards into the head. The flow volumes, pressures and flow rates are similar to those in lymphoedemas, hence the reason for looking at these shunts as a means of helping the lymphoedema resolve.

“The thought is that the tubing will help drain the build-up of lymph fluid into working lymphatics and that the one-way valve will stop this fluid flowing backwards and accumulating, much like the natural valves are supposed to,” Professor Piller says.

A pilot trial is being organised to test the effectiveness of these shunts.

Professor Piller says an effective shunt will potentially make a large different to patients. An effective shunt would reduce and possibly eliminate not only their painful symptoms, reduce limb size and also potentially reduce the need to wear compression garments.

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