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When radiation therapy damages the lymphatic system, fluids begins to pool causing swelling. Electroactive polymers can act like an artificial muscle that externally supports the lymphatic system
Cancer treatments are often a blessing that extend the lives of patients for years. But for many, the treatments can also result in damage to the lymphatic system that causes swelling and pain known as lymphedema, a condition for which there are limited treatments and no known cure.
When a family member of Gordon Goodman, a professor of gaming in RIT's School of Interactive Games and Media, was stricken with cancer and then lymphedema, he wanted to harness his passion for making things to create a better treatment.
"The lymphatic system is responsible for moving waste products from cells out through the lymph nodes," says Goodman. "When radiation therapy or lymph node sampling damages the lymphatic system, the viscous motor-oil-like fluid begins to pool in the affected limb, causing swelling, pain, and disfiguration."
At the onset of lymphedema, patients can often drain the fluids by elevating the affected extremity, but as the condition progresses this becomes ineffective and more formal treatment is required. Specially trained physical therapists can treat the swelling through a light massage technique or patients can also control the pooling themselves using compression bandages or pneumatic compression pumps.
For many, these treatments are not ideal or effective as the disease progresses. Goodman began looking for alternatives when he learned about electro-active polymers, or EAPs, flexible materials that can change shape when exposed to electric current.
"These polymers can act like an artificial muscle that externally supports and augments the lymphatic system," says Goodman. "EAPs could be used to make a comfortable expanding and contracting garment that would help alleviate the pooling of fluids in the lymph nodes."
Goodman created a design and assembled the Lymphedema Engineering Group—including Dan Phillips, director of the biomedical engineering program, Wayne Walter, a professor of mechanical engineering, Kathleen Lamkin- Kennard, a professor of mechanical engineering, and Ankur Chandra, a vascular surgeon at the University of Rochester Medical Center—to explore the feasibility of the design. William Spath, a microsystems engineering doctoral student, also works with the team, helping to optimize the configuration of the EAPs for integration into a garment.
"EAPs contain many special properties, including the ability to be used as measuring devices for research and to generate their own power, making them self-sustaining devices," says Goodman. "It will be exciting to see where we go from here."