Night Vision Technology to Learn about the Lymphatic System

May 4, 2009

Until recently, relatively little was know about the lymphatic system, for reasons that include the clear appearance of lymphatic fluid�making it hard to see, making it hard to inject enough contrast agents for MRI or X-ray imaging, and the several minutes needed to acquire an image with nuclear techniques.

Until recently, relatively little was know about the lymphatic system, for reasons that include the clear appearance of lymphatic fluid—making it hard to see—the smallness of lymphatic vessels—making it hard to inject enough contrast agents for MRI or X-ray imaging—and the several minutes needed to acquire an image with nuclear techniques—making it hard to observe lymphatic fluid movement.

Naturally, the director of the new Center for Molecular Imaging at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston decided that near-infrared night vision technology—used by US soldiers—could help overcome these imaging problems.

Eva Sevick, PhD, who leads the 20-person research team in the University’s Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases, found that micro amounts of fluorescent dye injected below the skin would be swept up by the lymphatic system, allowing her team to observe movement of the dye through the lymph system with the aid of a small laser and a night vision camera that was designed to pick up minimal amounts of light. Unlike with nuclear techniques, the camera could acquire images in less than a second.

“No one had ever watched this before,” said Caroline Fife, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine, The University of Texas Medical School at Houston and director of clinical research, Memorial Hermann - TMC Wound and Lymphedema Center. “This was like Christopher Columbus discovering America. Until now, we’ve never had a good way to study the lymph system. It felt like being a doctor before antibiotics.”

Speaking on how this work will impact oncology, “The Center for Molecular Imaging is poised to develop and translate molecular imaging agents, instruments and computer algorithms for improving patient care in a variety of diseases,” Sevick said. “With our optical technologies, we could image disease before the onset of symptoms. We also investigate the impact of breast cancer therapy on lymphatic function in order to evaluate how long-term treatments impact quality of life for cancer survivors.”

Sevick is currently recruiting patients for clinical studies to “determine the effect of an automated massage device on lymphatic flow in persons with lymphedema of either one arm or one leg” and evaluate “the effect of genetic makeup in persons with hereditary lymphedema and acquired lymphedema.” Call 713-500-3561 or send and e-mail to Eva.Sevick@uth.tmc.edu to learn more.