Compression sheath used as a new treatment for lymphedema in breast cancer

There has long been little progress in the technology behind the treatment of breast cancer lymphedema in clinics. This means that people who suffer from it still have to endure unpleasant situations. They have to sit for hours waiting for the current equipment to push the lymph fluid out of their arms and return it to where it needs to be. Researchers at the University of Waterloo, Canada, have developed a compression sheath to solve this problem. Their prototype is portable and battery-powered, allowing patients to be more independent in their lives.

The “air microfluidic” compression sheath is being developed by Professor Carolyn Ren of UW, who is also a co-founder of Air Microfluidic Systems. An interdisciplinary approach has brought together the team working on this unit. During their visit to Brainport Eindhoven, Professor Ren and Jackie Kormylo investigated how Dutch companies could help them with the further development of their unit.

Carolyn Ren

Lymphedema is a problem that can occur after a breast cancer surgery in which the lymph nodes have been removed. This disrupts lymph flow, leading to swelling. This is a chronic condition without cure. If left untreated, “tissue can die and require amputation,” said Jackie Kormylo, a master’s student in biomechanics at the University of Waterloo and clinical consultant at Air Microfluidic Systems. Her role as a clinical advisor is to translate user needs and assist in the development of a patient-driven design.

At the moment, the equipment is “noisy, not updated since the 1980s and causes physiological problems. There are also the openings that are not covered on the arm, and that is problematic,” Kormylo explains.

The core of the new technology is a microfluidic air chip with a series of duct networks that enable sequential injections of soft air bubbles. In this way, compression is given to the arm. The current prototype should become a portable device without openings. “The quality of life has greatly improved and it’s game changing,” notes Kormylo.

The air microfluidic compression sleeve is still in operation. The Waterloo team brought a prototype with them on their visit so they can show what they are working on. “It’s very light. The device it controls weighs only 168 grams, the weight of an iPhone 13,” says Professor Ren.

Although the device offers a promising solution to the problems in the treatment of lymphedema, there is still room for improvement. “The next step is to cover the elbow and armpit area completely,” says Ren. In addition, researchers have not yet found a permanent solution to the bubbles, which are currently very fragile. “If something goes wrong with it, the whole unit breaks. That’s why we brought them in thick glass for protection,” Ren adds.

One of the ideas Kormylo and Ren have about their compression holster is to 3D print the bubbles inside the sleeve. They are the part of the sleeve that moves the lymph fluid. “This could be an easier solution and would allow us to place the bubbles directly on the inner sleeve fabric,” explains Kormylo.

Another way to further develop the sleeve is by working with people who specialize in microfluidic and soft wearable robotics. “Researchers here in the Netherlands are trying to mimic the same kind of biological pumping that we do, but for the heart. We focus on moving air through specific systems on the arm,” Kormylo explains.

The sleeve will soon be clinically tested. “I got three clinics on board through my connections,” Kormylo says. The reactions to the new device seem promising. Many who have just heard of it are happy and want to help, says Kormylo. The visit of the researchers from Waterloo to Brainport has led to new connections and partnerships. These relationships can accelerate the development of new types of technologies. It is not for nothing that a new meeting is planned for November, but this time in Waterloo, Canada.

Main photo: The prototype of the air microfluidic chain. Source: University of Waterloo

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