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 uncomfortable situations. They have to sit for hours and wait for the current equipment to squeeze the lymph fluid from their arms and return it to where it should be. Scientists at the University of Waterloo, Canada, have developed a compression sleeve to address this problem. Their prototype is portable and battery-operated, allowing patients to be more independent in their lives.
The compression sleeve that is “air microfluidic” is being developed by Professor Carolyn Ren of the UW, who is also co-founder of Air Microfluidic Systems† A multidisciplinary approach has brought together the team working on this device. During their visit to Brainport Eindhoven Professor Ren and Jackie Kormylo investigated how Dutch companies could help them with the further development of their device.
Lymphedema is a problem that can occur after breast cancer surgery in which the lymph nodes have been removed. This disrupts lymph flow, leading to swelling. This is a chronic condition with no cure. If left untreated, “tissue can die and require amputation,” said Jackie Kormylo, a master’s student of Biomechanics at the University of Groningen. University of Waterloo and clinical advisor at Air Microfluidic Systems. Her role as a clinical advisor is to translate the needs of the users and assist in the development of a patient-driven design.
Currently, the equipment is “noisy, not updated since the 1980s and causing physiological problems. There are also those openings that are not covered on the arm and that is problematic,” explains Kormylo.
At the heart of the new technology is a microfluidic air chip with a series of channel networks that allow for sequential injections of soft air bubbles. In this way compression is given to the arm. The current prototype is to become a portable device without openings. “Quality of life is greatly improving and that is game-changing,” notes Kormylo.
The air microfluidic compression sleeve is still a work in progress. The Waterloo team brought a prototype on their visit so they can show what they’re working on. “It’s very light. The device it controls is 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 stage is to completely cover the elbow and armpit areas,” Ren says. In addition, the scientists have yet to come up with a permanent solution for the bubbles, which are currently very fragile. “If something goes wrong with it, the whole device breaks down. That’s why we brought them in thick glass for protection,” adds Ren.
One of the ideas Kormylo and Ren have about their compression sleeve is to 3D print the bubbles inside the sleeve. They are the part of the sleeve that moves the lymph fluid. “This could be a lighter solution and would allow us to place the bubbles directly on the inner sleeve fabric,” Kormylo elaborates.
Another way to further develop the sleeve is by working with people who specialize in microfluidic and soft wearable robotics. “Scientists here in the Netherlands are trying to mimic the same kind of biological pumping as what we do, but for the heart. We focus on moving air through specific systems on the arm,” explains Kormylo.
The sleeve will be clinically tested soon. “I got three clinics on board through my connections,” Kormylo says. The reactions to the new device seem promising. Many people who just heard about it are happy and want to help, says Kormylo. The visit of the scientists 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 sheath. Source: University of Waterloo